Stores Stock Up on Gadgets to Aid Coastal Residents’ Hurricane Response

August 4, 2009

Technology, developed in the four years since Hurricane Katrina, didn’t necessarily come out of the hurricane but will help with evacuation, power outages and recovery if there is another big storm.

Stores on the coast are getting prepared, stocking everything from bottled water to the latest gadgets that will help residents get their home and office computers backed up and their families safely evacuated.

New GPS systems and cell-phone applications give real-time traffic reports to show routes around the evacuation traffic jams. The stores also have safer generators, adapters to power electronics and even battery-operated blenders for those who intend to keep their tradition of hurricane parties.

Forecasters predict nine to 14 named tropical storms this year, with up to three becoming major hurricanes. Once the tropical storms get named and begin heading this way, coast residents get serious about their hurricane preparations.

The newest varieties of battery-powered fans and cell phone chargers are in stock at Academy Sports in Gulfport, Mississippi and ready to add to a hurricane preparedness kit.

Cyndi McCorkle, a manager at Office Depot in Biloxi, said when a storm enters the Gulf of Mexico and especially when South Mississippi is within the cone of probability, “that’s when you see people coming in.”

Stacks of bottled water and a hurricane-preparedness display with weather radios and flashlights are just inside the door.

“Heed the advance storm warnings and get your most important assets, your people and your data, out of harm’s way,” said Jon Toigo, Office Depot disaster-preparedness adviser.

With the current economy, it is more important than ever for a business to reopen quickly after a storm, and he said, “There are simple and affordable steps you can take to protect your business now.”

Toigo recommends the Energizer Energi To Go instant cell-phone charger ($18.34) and backing up computers using a USB memory stick, CD-ROM or DVD-R, a portable hard disk that works with a touch of a button or a laptop computer.

“Surge protectors are also a good thing to have,” said McCorkle, along with prepaid cell phones.

“We have plenty of GPS units,” plus travel cases and gadgets to mount the system in the car, he said.

With the TomTom GPS system ($299.99 on the Office Depot Web site) drivers can speak a destination and hear turn-by-turn guidance as they evacuate.

An AT&T Emergency Preparedness Survey this year showed about half the people living near a coast don’t have an emergency plan, said Sue Sperry, spokeswoman for AT&T Mississippi. Part of planning is where to go and how to get there, and she said the new AT&T Navigator makes that easier.

“It talks to you. It checks the traffic for you,” she said.

It also finds hotels.

“You can call and see if they have any rooms. You can do that from your cell phone,” Sperry said.

With GPS technology by computer or smart phone, the AT&T Family Map pinpoints the locations of cell phones of up to four family members who are on the same payment plan.

“It gives parents peace of mind,” said Sperry, and can be handy to show where older parents or students at college are during a storm.

Using air cards available through AT&T, computer users can connect to cell towers for Internet access.

Since Katrina, “we have a lot more cell sites,” said Sperry, who recommends texting during and after a storm when so many people are making calls. “They can add text for one month. They can go online and add text when a storm’s in the Gulf,” she said. “That’s $20 peace of mind.”

Both AT&T and Cellular South are featuring Netbooks (starting at $199) that are about half the size of a regular laptop and made for working on the go.

“This device promises to provide the ultimate in mobile connectivity and freedom through anytime, anywhere access to the Internet,” said Kevin Hankins, chief operating officer for Cellular South. The Dell mini notebook weighs 2.6 pounds and the monthly plan for access is $59.99 for a 5GB data allowance. Students can get a 20 percent discount.

Since Katrina, Cellular South has invested more than $350 million to bolster the Mississippi portion of its network, including $8 million in equipment and system upgrades on the Coast to improve service in the event of a hurricane.

In the current sales circular for Academy Sports at Crossroads Shopping Center in Gulfport is a hurricane-preparedness section featuring propane cook stoves, power inverters, batteries, gas cans and lanterns.

The camping department has what Coast residents will need if the power goes out after a storm, said manager John DePineuil. There are battery-operated fans ($9-$28) to keep your cool and combination weather radio/flashlights, starting at $14.99, that have a power cord to recharge most cell phones and MP3 players. People can stock their hurricane pantries with dehydrated Louisiana red beans and rice, jambalaya, and eggs.

“Just add water,” said DePineuil. “There’s breakfast to dinner — even ice cream.”

A Coleman blender ($27.99) keeps the party going through a storm and those who need a hurricane as a reason to buy a new barbecue grill will find an aisle of new styles.

A generator is the choice of many people for cooking and cooling after a hurricane. Room air conditioners were big sellers last year before Hurricane Gustav, said Scott Corry, manager at Home Depot in Biloxi. The new Ridgid generator has a twist.

“You can control the operation from inside your home,” said Corry. There’s a control box that detaches from the unit to more safely operate the generator away from doors and windows.

Home Depot has essentials people need before and after the storm, including water, batteries, gas cans, weather radios and tarps, and stays open 24 hours a day before a storm.

“Buy now; there’s product in the stores,” he said. “We all hope that it’s not necessary.”

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