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We’re often asked by readers whether cell phones will work if there is a major disaster and the answer is “yes and no.” Actually, there is no yes or no answer to this question. It all depends on the type of disaster that occurs. If the power is out you can’t recharge the phone. If winds damage the cell tower or if the cell tower doesn’t have a backup power source to keep it going, you won’t be able to connect to family or friends unless you have a landline that doesn’t require electricity and has underground cables. During Hurricane Sandy many of the cell phone towers were disabled by lack of electricity and those with backup only had a few hours of additional power. The landlines were not affected as long as they weren’t wireless.
When a disaster occurs, “old school” technology often still works to get messages in and out of the area. Examples of these are walkie-talkies—handheld radio transmitters and receivers—HAM radio and land lines that aren’t wireless. If you don’t want an antiquated wired phone sitting on your counter top or love the caller ID feature of more modern phones, you can have a backup in a box in storage and plug it in when the power fails and cell phones are useless. While that might not work in all cases, such as an EMP, it will work for most localized natural disasters. One estimate is that the landline will work in 99.9 percent of natural disasters. A storm may take out a cell tower but it won’t touch underground phone lines.
HAM radio is an alternative, as long as you have a power source or a portable type. You do need a license to operate a HAM radio, but it’s easy to get. There are all types of HAM radios. Some are huge and can take up the space of an entire table or counter top. Newer ones can be handheld. The drawbacks to a HAM radio is that it requires training to use properly and a license. It also can be quite a large investment. While antennaes may not be allowed in some areas, you can create a make-shift antennae that is discrete and impossible to detect. If you live in an area that’s prone to natural disasters that often wipe out cell service, having a HAM radio might be a good investment. It is one method of contacting family and friends that live outside the area to let them know you’re alright. Again, this could take planning if your family member doesn’t have a HAM radio, too.