How to get in touch with loved ones during and after a disaster

From flash flooding and hurricanes to earthquakes and tornadoes, disaster can strike at any time. One of the first things on the minds of those directly or indirectly involved in such situations is the well-being of their loved ones.

Following Hurricane Maria's devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017, many people based off of the island struggled to reach family members trapped on the U.S. territory with no access to electricity or cell phone service.

Communicating with family during and after a disaster can be tricky without proper preparations beforehand. This is why it's critical to figure out how your family plans to stay in contact.

Make a family emergency plan

A key step that should occur well in advance of a disaster is developing a family plan to ensure that everyone is in the loop about how to stay connected.

The Department of Homeland Security's recommends discussing four main topics, including the shelter plan, evacuation route, communication plan and how you'll receive emergency alerts or warnings.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a family communication plan template to simplify the process of creating an emergency strategy.

"The plan should include what the family will do if an event occurs - ‘What do we do?', ‘Where do we go?'", said Dr. Steve Goldman, an instructor and crisis management expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"If the disaster is local, they should discuss whether to meet at home, with a friend or a neighborhood landmark, and if the neighborhood is in trouble, then maybe a nearby hospital or a community center," Goldman said.

Designating a leader to implement the emergency plan can help a family stay organized when disaster strikes, according to Goldman.

It's also essential to create a list of contact information for relatives, friends and emergency services, and the list should contain a contact who lives outside of the disaster area, according to Goldman.

"In an emergency, you're not going to remember phone numbers. If all your information is on a cell phone and you run out of power, you're stuck," Goldman said.

Without a cell phone, it will prove challenging for a non-local contact to reach family members living in the affected area, he warned.

"It's going to be [the responsibility of the relative in the disaster area] to reach out," Goldman said.

Families should keep all names, phone numbers and important documents in a waterproof area, advised Dr. Angie Lindsey, assistant professor of community issues education for the University of Florida's (UF) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"A lot of community organizations, like the Red Cross, have these resource lists available online, but I would suggest printing them out in case the internet is down," Lindsey said.

Use social media, emergency apps

Goldman recommended having a landline phone in the household, as landlines can still function during power outages and when cell phone towers are down.

There are many cell phone apps available that can prove beneficial in an emergency and that work despite lack of cell service. Social media can also still be accessible if an internet connection can be found, experts say.

"After Hurricane Irma, my cell phone service was gone, but if I connected to WiFi, I was able to go to my Twitter or Facebook and communicate with people that way," Lindsey said.

"The team of us at the University of Florida also communicated using Whatsapp, because we were able to find WiFi in places throughout our communities," she added.

When Hurricane Harvey pounded Texas and Louisiana in 2017, several users on Twitter and Facebook reached out to strangers asking for assistance locating their missing loved ones.

Facebook also offers a Safety Check feature that helps you let your friends and family know that you're okay.

Potentially useful apps, many of which are free, include Zello, Silent Beacon and B Safe, according to Goldman.

Family networking app Life 360 has a family emergency contact option, allowing you to reach each of your contacts in a single click with one message, said Goldman.

The American Red Cross offers the Safe and Well website in addition to its emergency app.

"[It's] a private, easy-to-use online tool that helps [people] notify loved ones that they're safe," said American Red Cross spokesperson Anthony Tornetta.

"Safe and Well is often used by institutions to register large numbers of people, and nursing homes, assisted living facilities, schools and workplaces frequently use it to report on people associated with the institution," Tornetta said.

With any emergency plan a family develops, Goldman suggested practicing it before a disaster occurs.

"You review the plan, you test it out, you revise it, you critique it, you re-write it and you're good," he said.

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