Our smartphones can be a crucial lifeline when disaster strikes.

If 2013 is remembered for anything in central Illinois, it will likely be the bizarre weather phenomena: record-setting flooding along the Illinois River in the spring and unrelenting heat during the harvest season, punctuated by the tornadoes that tore through Pekin, East Peoria and Washington on November 17th.

Like most area residents, the tornado hit close to home for me. More than a dozen of my family members were displaced as a result—two homes were leveled and two more took a shellacking. My grandparents, who only lost a few shingles, screens and pieces of siding, emerged from their interior bathroom to see their neighbors’ second floor shredded to pieces and the house across the street shuffled off its foundation. Everyone escaped unscathed.

Mother Nature has demonstrated that she’s impossible to control. Preparation, then, is key when dealing with her. And it starts in our pockets.

Mobile phones have been useful since at least the early 2000s, no matter what disaster we’ve faced. When the World Trade Center towers were hit on 9/11, the only communications systems that continued to work from inside the towers were the BlackBerry messaging and phone service. We have since come to use our phones for a myriad of reasons.

It’s no understatement that mobile phones helped save thousands of lives during the November storm. Countless people told media outlets how notifications pushed to their phones alerted them to seek shelter. Our smartphones are powerful tools that can do much more than warn us of imminent danger. Using the twisters as a backdrop, learn how to leverage your device to arm yourself for nearly any of the volatile weather events we see in the Midwest.

Use Your Phone to Prepare for Future Disasters
First, remember to rely on the best tool you’ve got: your brain. Memorize phone numbers of a few family members or close friends who you can call or text in an emergency. You can’t necessarily rely on your phone for a few reasons. One, maybe you didn’t have time to grab it before you took shelter. Two, you may need to borrow someone else’s phone in case you ran out of batteries or a network tower has been toppled, which is what happened near Metamora.

Use a scanner to make digital backups of your most important documents—identification, insurance and other key documents. A high-resolution digital photo could be a decent substitute here if you don’t have access to a scanner. Speaking of which, take plenty of pictures. Savor those candids and selfies you take in and around your home. Insurance adjusters want to know what it looked like so they can replace your lost or damaged items. Looking through these pictures will help you identify and list these.

Once you’ve digitized this vital information, you’ll need backups. Take what you consider to be the essentials, and plop them on a thumb drive you can carry around on your keychain or in your purse. Buy an external hard drive, and make sure everything you need is on it. Store that drive in a basement or a separate secure location, such as a storage locker or safe deposit box. In other words, keep it away from your main computer so it’s not as likely to be damaged. Even better, use a cloud service like Google Drive or Dropbox so you can access your data anywhere.

Using an app such as Evernote or Apple’s Notes, track what you want to make sure to bring with you when you need to take cover. Proper identification, such as a driver’s license or state ID card, is important because you’ll probably need it to verify your residence as law enforcement officers grant you access to the disaster zone.

Know where your family heirlooms are. My aunt happened to be wearing her late mom’s wedding ring the day the tornado hit, but you could get distracted trying to find these things while rescuing family members or neighbors, so take note while you have a level head.

Additionally, you may want to note specifically where you have items located in a basement to know whether it’s still relatively safe (as in the event of a tornado) or whether it needs to be moved immediately (in the event of a flood). Speaking of basements, opt for storing valuables in plastic tubs instead of cardboard boxes for minimal water damage. Look for deals on Rubbermaid or other brands during New Year’s or spring cleaning season, and buy two or three more than you think you’ll need.

Get a case for your phone that doubles as a charger ahead of a power outage. For an affordable price, these cases can be invaluable when you’re exchanging texts and calls with family members, emergency teams and adjusters. Alternatively, look for other charging modules, such as power cubes, or perhaps a vehicle jump-starter pack with a USB plug to give your devices plenty of juice even after your power is out.

Take advantage of other apps and services, such as Evernote, Dropbox, WeatherBug and Google Maps. Download offline versions of maps to your phone so you don’t have to rely on Internet service or data coverage, which can be non-existent in the case of a downed tower. These maps will help residents and volunteers navigate streets whose signs have been obliterated.

When You Know A Disaster Is Coming…
You know bad weather is on its way, thanks to a notification that’s been pushed to your phone. You’ve taken inventory of your priceless belongings, stored pertinent data that you can access anywhere, and you’re ready to use apps to your advantage. What’s next?

Make sure your phone is charged. You’re going to use it. A lot. Even if you have a case charger, maximize battery life by keeping the phone itself charged. Turn off unnecessary services (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth) to maximize battery life, and decrease screen brightness to get an extra hour or two of usage.

You’ll probably use a few apps, such as a weather app or apps from the Red Cross, to keep track of the storm. Even the National Weather Service will send you a notification of what’s headed your way. You may also want to alert immediate family members of what’s headed near your vicinity so they can help you should you need it. Given how fast the November storm system was moving—65 mph—notifying anyone else might seem like a luxury. Make sure you are safe first.

What To Do During the Disaster Itself
Let’s be completely honest—more than one of you reading this either already has or would want to record the storm as it’s happening. That’s your call. Sure, it might wind up circulating among the network news stations, but only you can decide whether the anchors of the Today Show talking about your 15-second clip is worth your life.

Each video from people who recorded the Washington tornado shows a unique perspective, whether it was from miles away or bearing down right on top of them. In one harrowing video, you don’t see anything; instead, you hear a father narrate what’s happening as his daughter shrieks in the background.

You’d be best served by seeking shelter and using the phone to monitor the radar and real-time news tools, such as Twitter or even your Facebook network.

Immediately Following the Disaster
First, assess your situation and seek help if necessary. As soon as possible, post a message on your Facebook wall that says you’re okay—your family and friends will want to know how you’re doing. By posting a single message, you can save your battery and avoid the urge to respond to individual calls and texts until you find a power source.

Once you’ve assessed the status of those close to you, you’d be wise to take some pictures or videos of the damage. Claims adjusters will ask about the condition of your home before they visit. Plus, from a purely historical perspective, you’ll hopefully only see this once in your life, so you might as well capture the sights and sounds while you can.

Social media will help in a variety of ways. The Facebook group for Washington tornado victims racked up more than 150,000 likes in a single day, ultimately topping out around 177,000. Prior to the tornado, my family had established a Facebook group, but we rarely used it prior to the storm. Afterwards, it was an easy point for extended family members to stay up to date on the latest happenings.

You never know when disaster will strike. Thankfully, our smartphones provide a crucial lifeline. iBi

Adam Bockler is the communications manager for Float Mobile Learning and owner of Metamora Martial Arts.