Dear Omar

‘Will This App Prepare Me for the Apocalypse?’

The Harbor app promises to aid reluctant preppers

A phone’s emergency alert with the text “THE END OF THE WORLD IS NEAR” on top of a picture of a dark cloud.
A phone’s emergency alert with the text “THE END OF THE WORLD IS NEAR” on top of a picture of a dark cloud.

Welcome to Dear Omar, a weekly Debugger column from tech expert Omar L. Gallaga answering all the gadget and technology questions you were afraid to ask.

Panic as a lifestyle choice became a mood in 2020. Suddenly, it began to feel like doomsday preppers were making a good point.

As Covid-19 caught the country flatfooted and as stores ran out of toilet paper and other essentials, basement-stocking and bunker-building began to gain more mainstream attention. The preppers were kind enough to share their knowledge and not add, “Told ya so.”

What I have wondered, as I’ve been browsing survivalist websites like The Prepared (sample review headline: “Best emergency candles”) and to take stock of what’s out there to keep my family alive in the event of a cataclysm (another cataclysm) is this: Would I survive an apocalypse? Do I have what it takes? With the help of an app (even in the end times, there will always be “an app for that”), I decided to find out.

My conclusion is that I would make a terrible doomsday prepper for several reasons: I do so much comparison shopping and online bargain-hunting that by the time I stocked even a fourth of my bunker, the apocalypse would have already happened. I’d be using the last ounce of electricity on the grid to put in an eBay bid on a used Honda generator. Swift decisions are not my thing.

I’m also bad at being ruthless. I’d collect water-purifying tablets only to lend them all to my neighbors who are trying to make disaster margaritas. Look, even when it might be the end of the world, I don’t judge.

Will $20 save me from certain disaster? Photo: Omar L. Gallaga

But I do care. I saw last year how quickly a single virus can upend our entire way of life, how quickly we went from complaining about tall people at concerts to being stuck at home for a year with livestreams instead of live music. I care that my kids are safe and that they’d survive any disruption coming our way. We’re not naturalists, we have never really camped, but we’re resourceful, good with tools, and we’ve seen multiple seasons of The Great British Baking Show. Some of those techniques should apply, right?

My anxiety was starting to go off the charts until I had a very calming conversation with Dan Kessler, the CEO of Harbor, a disaster preparedness app that debuted in early October.

When you launch the Harbor app, which is focused on safety in the home, it asks you a lot of questions about your location, what you have in your living spaces, and whether you know things like how many gallons of water you should have stored for each person you live with in the event of a water shutdown or contamination that might last a few days. (Spoiler: three gallons per person.)

As the former vice president of business development for the meditation app Headspace, Kessler believes that good information delivered in a calm, friendly way is the best way to get people disaster-ready.

“It is motivating, but I think there are some areas where you don’t have to double down on fear to motivate people,” Kessler said. “It’s a lot better to help people reach a state of calm and have that be the foundation of resilience.”

Dan Kessler is CEO of Harbor, a company that is trying to make disaster preparation mainstream, doing a presentation at Google office in Seoul. Photo: Google

Harbor, the app, uses muted colors and big, friendly text to quiz you, inform you, and nudge you to make gradual, not-too-expensive changes to your home. For me (as someone living in Central Texas), tsunamis, earthquakes, and especially volcanoes are not a huge risk (forget what you saw on 911: Lone Star), but flooding is a problem, and so are fires and tornadoes and power outages caused by summer heatwaves.

When Harbor asked me if I had considered storing a few gallons of water in case the tap stopped flowing or whether I had a fire extinguisher—any fire extinguisher—in my house, I had to face the hard truth that these were things I hadn’t even thought about in the two and a half years since I bought my home. I’ve been slow to replace malfunctioning smoke alarms. Maybe we have bad wiring; I have no idea. I never bothered to install the free Ting device my insurance company sent me months ago that is supposed to be able to detect potential electrical fires before they happen.

Kessler, I think, understands people like me who don’t want to be scared into spending thousands of dollars on expensive gear but who would benefit from a lot of small, actionable improvements that can be made without a lot of fuss.

He said that a lot of home-safety prep happens after it’s too late. “It’s easier to take an aspirin when you’re hurting, but it’s hard to remember to take your vitamins because you want to be preventative,” he says. “If you throw in $10, $20, it goes a long way. That’s how our app is organized; we take those things that are cheap but really impactful, and we encourage you to do those first.”

Kessler, who was in Mexico City for a major earthquake and in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, says he may be a “slightly more paranoid” person than most people, but as he’s studied actuary tables and gone down the rabbit hole of information about the potential disasters of the future, it’s only motivated him more to make the app prepare people for more and worse hurricanes, wildfires, winter storms, and other natural disasters that are being made worse by climate change and urbanization.

“Every year, we’re breaking the last year’s records. It’s going to get worse,” he said, “we’re gonna look back at 2020 as being a better year for natural disasters, unfortunately.”

After a few days of playing with Harbor, I learned that my home is neither the safe haven any decent prepper would admire nor the deathtrap I feared. But it’s a work in progress, and I feel much better about my ability to make the incremental improvements that will help us survive 2021.

Today I went to Lowe’s and bought a $20 fire extinguisher. It’s under the sink now, where one should have been for the last two years at least. My kids and I are one very tiny increment safer. Maybe that’ll help me sleep a little better.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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