Mobility

Hurricane Harvey: Tech companies are helping victims save their smartphones

The devastation from Hurricane Harvey has left millions of people wading through flooded streets. Tech companies are coming forward to help, some by offering free drying services for smartphones.

tekdry-adam-cookson-and-rob-knapp.jpg

TekDry CEO Adam Cookson (left) and TekDry investor Rob Knapp (right) operating the company's machines in front of the rescue shelter at a Houston shelter.

Image: TekDry

The floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey are starting to subside in Texas and Louisiana, but the devastation has left many people with smartphones that were submerged in water as they sought shelter from the pounding storms.

The need for help was so great that it led Adam Cookson, CEO of TekDry, to drive 1,000 miles from Denver to Houston to help victims of the hurricane dry out their smartphones. Cookson drove overnight to arrive at a Houston shelter on Wednesday to offer his company's services for free.

zena-the-aid-worker.jpg

Adam Cookson, CEO of TekDry, with Zena, a volunteer helping those at a Houston shelter. Zena's phone had been submerged in water and TekDry rescued it.

Image: TekDry

"The first day was pretty chaotic. For a lot of people, their first concern was being able to tell their relatives they're okay. One of the people we helped was Gregory, and he was trying to get in touch with his family to let them know he was okay," Cookson said. "It seems kind of strange and obvious, but there are no pay phones. There are no ways to actually call people if you don't have a [mobile] phone. It's a little bit uncomfortable for people to start loaning out their phones because they're personal devices now, not public devices."

Another person he helped, David, needed to call his employer to tell him where he was or he risked losing his job. A Red Cross worker, Zena, also needed his help. "Zena's phone had gotten wet and she's deaf. She communicates through texting, so she really had no way to communicate until she had her phone back," Cookson recalled.

SEE: Beware these Hurricane Harvey phishing and spam attacks (TechRepublic)

TekDry has a drying process that has led to the recovery of about 65% of the dozens of smartphones treated at the shelter. Some of the phones he's seen have additional damage, such as dings and mud, as a result of struggling to walk through flood waters.

TekDry uses a special box to dry out a smartphone, or other electronic device. The box has a vacuum that removes all of the air, and the device sits in metal beads to put a low level of heat around the item. The water turns to gas and is vacuumed out of the box. The process takes 30 minutes, Cookson said.

tekdry-beads.jpg

TekDry uses metal beads to gently warm a phone as it dries.

Image: TekDry

TekDry has 600 locations across the US, with most in Staples stores and there is a mail-in service available. Common items that can be submerged and need recovery include laptops, electronic key fobs, cameras, TV remotes and tablets. It's normally $69.99 to dry out a phone if it is recoverable. If the drying process doesn't work, TekDry doesn't charge for the service.

Another tech-drying company is also helping hurricane victims free of charge. Drybox, based in San Antonio, has self-service kiosks at 11 Houston-area H.E.B. stores. The normal $39.95 charge is being waived if people enter promotion code HARVEY.

dry-box.jpg

DryBox kiosks are self-service drying centers.

Image: DryBox

"We'll be waiving the fee for at least a few more days. You think the flooding is over, but people are still out there and getting in the water and dropping their phone. As long as it's part of the relief effort, we will be helping," said David Naumann, founder of Dry Ventures, which operates the DryBox kiosks.

The DryBox drying process is similar to TekDry, and also takes 30 minutes, Naumann said. The kiosk boxes can hold any item up to 7 inches wide, including smartphones, Kindles and mini iPads. If the drying process doesn't work, and the customer buys a replacement item, they can get a refund for the drying cost.

A Wireless, a Verizon retailer, is also offering free smartphone drying services through September 30, using Redux technology at more than 20 Houston-area and Louisiana stores.

What to do if your phone gets wet

While the drying services are an excellent option, if you can't make it to a Staples location for TekDry, or to visit a H.E.B. store DryBox kiosk, here are tips from Gazelle on how anyone can try to save their phone from water damage:

1. Power down. The first thing to do after retrieving your phone from water is to shut it off - this protects it from short circuiting.

2. Make way. Water can quickly fill an entire phone. Make a path for it to get out by opening or removing all obstructions:

  • Remove the case
  • Remove the battery (if possible)
  • Remove any headphones
  • Remove the SIM card
  • Remove the memory card

2.1 [OPTIONAL] Wash it out. If your phone fell into salt water, dirty water, or something other than water, run it under clean tap water to flush out any residual salt, minerals and contaminants. Your phone was already full of water, so you're not making it wetter - just cleaner.

3. Drain it. Force out as much water as possible. Tilt it, shake it, blow air through it, or use a wet/dry vacuum cleaner to suck out the liquid.

4. Open up. Open your phone. Don't worry about breaking your warranty, because that was null as soon as water hit the damage indicator.

5. Dry it. Your phone is still wet inside, so speed up the drying process to minimize the damage as much as possible. Here are three options to try:

  1. Air it out: In dry climates, good air circulation may be all you need. In our tests, open-air drying worked best. A fan may improve airflow through the phone's ports.
  2. Warm it up: If you can reliably warm it to 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit (but no more) you will dramatically speed evaporation. Apple lists the maximum tolerable temperature as 113 degrees Fahrenheit, so be careful.
  3. Absorb it: If it's too humid for open-air drying, you may want to use a drying agent to soak up the moisture. Don't bother with the "rice trick." Uncooked conventional white rice is the least effective for absorbing liquids. Instead, try the following:
  • Silica gel: The best common drying agent is silica gel, which can be found in the pet aisle of your grocery store as "crystal" style cat litter.
  • Couscous: Instant couscous or instant rice are acceptable substitutes for silica. In our tests, these absorbed water much faster than conventional rice. Instant oatmeal works too, but makes a mess of your phone.

6. Resist the urge to turn it on. Give your phone a few days to dry. Water may be trapped in tight spots or have absorbed into your phone's circuit boards.

7. Test it out. Once your phone is dry and reassembled, it may turn on immediately. If not, there are a few things you can try:

  • Charge it: A few hours of charging may get it going.
  • Sync it: One of Gazelle's test iPhones appeared dead but could still sync, allowing data to be recovered.
  • Swap the battery: Two of Gazelle's drowned iPhones came back to life with a battery swap.
  • Keep your cards: Your SIM and SD cards contain your contact lists and some of your data.

How other tech companies are helping

It's more than just smartphones that need help in the stricken areas of Texas and Louisiana. Here are what some tech companies are doing to help.

Datto is a data backup and disaster recovery company that is helping businesses along the Texas Gulf Coast to get up and running again as quickly as possible. The services are free, and to date, 120 managed service providers (MSPs) have been affected, and Datto is working with 50 of those. Datto has a team on the ground in the Houston area to work with shelters to provide network access so victims can connect with friends and family.

"Currently we are planning to have on site support for 5 weeks, but will be evaluating the situation in real time to determine the needs and ensure that we are providing support accordingly," said Matt Richards, vice president of product marketing for Datto.

Monetary donations are also coming from the tech world:

  • Apple is donating $2 million to the American Red Cross.
  • Google is matching up to $1 million in donations made to the American Red Cross.
  • Verizon pledged $10 million to Harvey relief efforts.
  • Amazon and Whole Foods Market are matching up to $1 million in donations made to the American Red Cross via Amazon.
  • Facebook is matching up to $1 million raised on its site for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy's Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund.
  • Alltech is donating $20,000 to relief efforts, and matching all donations to its ACE Foundation.
  • CompTIA is contributing $2 for every $1 pledged to its relief campaign, up to $200,000.
  • Snapsheet is raising funds for the United Way of Greater Houston to support relief efforts.
  • G2 Crowd is using G2 Gives, a give-back program it introduced earlier in 2017, to raise funds for victims. For each verified review posted to G2 Crowd through its landing page, it will donate $10 to the American Red Cross.

Also see

About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox