Snipe.Net Geeky, sweary things.

How iOS Helped Me Navigate My Mother to Safety During Hurricane Irma


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the gigantic hurricane that battered the Caribbean islands and Florida, and continues to travel up the east coast, affecting as far north as the Great Lakes.

I live in San Diego, California, clear on the other side of the country, but my family just moved my mother from New Jersey to western Florida a month or so ago. When Irma’s path became clear, her town (as well as many others) were issued mandatory evacuations.

My mother is elderly and disabled, and has never been through a Florida-style hurricane before. She also has the single worst sense of direction of any human on the planet. I’m not kidding. She left in her car one day to go to the Home Depot, 10 miles away, and ran out of gas driving for seven hours – and still never found the Home Depot. I wish I was exaggerating. (She also thought the digital display on her car came with a “wind indicator” that could help with gas mileage based on the direction the wind was hitting the car. Never once occurred to her that it was a compass.)

I had been texting her in the days leading up to the shelter, with links to websites where she could track evacuation routes, check shelter statuses and mandatory evacuations.

In addition to being terrible with directions, she is also really stubborn. Runs in the family, I guess. So she opted not to evacuate when we urged her to, or when the mandatory evacuation came through for her area, and only decided days later as the storm was about to hit that maybe she should try to find a shelter.

“Great!” we thought. She mentioned that a bunch of other people in her neighborhood that had planned on staying had changed their mind and decided to head to the closest hurricane shelter, so we told her to hitch a ride with one of them. She needed a shelter that was pet-friendly and accessible, so that narrowed her options, but there were several within 30 miles of her that could accommodate pets. She said her neighbor told her of a highschool that was pretty close, so she was going to catch a ride there with other evacuees. Perfect. Whew.

A few hours pass, and we get a text from her, from the iPad I gave her a few years ago. (I could tell it was from her iPad, since the messages were blue on my phone, and she doesn’t have an iPhone.)

“Lost. Trying to get to HS.”


Trying to keep calm, I reply “Are you driving? Use Siri. Siri will give you directions. Pull over and put in the HS info. “

Her: “No lectures. Couldn’t find a ride! Bye”

Me: “Stay calm, pull over and let Siri give you turn by turn directions.”

I knew she had used Siri before, because she had remarked about how much she loved the iPad, and how much the “lady who says the directions out loud” was helpful. I guess she had never tried to use from anywhere but her house though, and assumed it wouldn’t work if home wasn’t her starting point.

Her: “I no. But I am not home”

I looked up the address of the highschool on the Internet and pasted it to her. I explain that if she clicks on the address in iMessages, it should launch the map app and offer her directions. She said she tried that and it didn’t work. (I honestly have no idea what she did, but the situation was urgent, so I moved on to the next idea.) I then sent her the location directly from Apple Maps. Somehow she still couldn’t get that to work. Again, no idea, so moving on.

My fiancee and I were on our way home when all of this transpired, driving through the mountains outside of San Diego where reception gets a little spotty, so we decided to pull over. I could tell that she’s getting frustrated, and the clock is running out. I know she’ll just give up and go home. Or try to, rather. More likely she’d turn around to go home and still end up lost. So we pulled off in Alpine, CA – a perfectly adorable little town that looks right out of a storybook. We found a Starbucks (yes, my storybooks have Starbucks in them – don’t judge), I took out my laptop, which was thankfully at 100% charge and I called her.

At this point, Mom doesn’t know where she is, and she’s somehow not able to get any of the Apple Maps stuff to work. She thought maybe she didn’t have the right app, and I explained that Apple Maps comes with the iPad, so she definitely has it. I can hear her frustration growing. She’s tired, she’s in pain, and she wants to stop driving – and I’m running out of options.

I broke into her iCloud account to see if location services were enabled, so I could try to navigate her through Find My iPhone. They weren’t, but I was able to walk her through turning them on through the Settings menu on her iPad very quickly. Soon enough, her beacon popped up on the website. Thank Glob. We’re in business. Turns out, after driving around for two hours, she was 12 miles away from the shelter and only 15 miles from her home.

So, I knew where she was, but I also know how terrible she is at following directions. So I open Apple Maps on my laptop, and set up a split screen with her iCloud locator beacon and the directions from where she was currently parked. Refreshing the Find My iPhone page, I could guide her over the phone, telling her what to expect (“In about a minute, you’ll pass a Publix on your left”).

Success! Ten minutes later, she arrived at the highschool. Only to find the windows dark and the gates locked. I double-checked the shelter list I had been referencing, and it was never on the list to start with, so that entire trip was a wild goose chase. I can hear mom getting pretty upset at this point and I told her to stay calm, and that we’d find another one.

I don’t know Florida geography at all, but I used Apple Maps to find a few official pet-friendly shelter options that were close, while my fiancee parallel-pathed by calling them to make sure they had a vacancy. It waspretty late in the evacuation game, after all, and the odds were good that many shelters would be full by then. Most didn’t answer the phone, but that didn’t surprise us too much.

I find a place that’s 20 minutes away, and repeat the turn-by-turn process for her, refreshing her Find My iPhone page every minute or so, and then switching back to Apple Maps. I could hear Siri faintly in the background, so I think Apple Maps worked fine for her, she just couldn’t hear Siri on her iPad, even with the sound turned all the way up, since the iPad was on her passenger seat.

She arrived at the second shelter, only to be turned away. They were full. She started to cry, and explained to the shelter volunteer that she’s disabled and hasn’t taken her heart medicine yet, and begged him to let her in. He apologized and said he couldn’t. When she wouldn’t stop begging, her referred her to someone else at the shelter who might have more information.

We were in luck. The other shelter worker knew of another shelter that still had room. (I can hear all of this conversation on the phone, and asked her to hand the guy her phone so I could take down the address.)

So, back in the car she goes. This third place was about 15 miles away. Mom was pretty upset at this point, but I promised her I’d get her and her dog there safe and sound if she could just stick with me a few more minutes. Once again, turn by turn, two-screens up showing me where she is and where she’s going, to make sure I can catch it if she makes a wrong turn.

After an hour and 45 minutes, she pulls into the third shelter. My laptop is at 3%. I hear them ask for her driver’s license number and license plate number. She’s in.

I exhale.

My shoulders are sore from holding the phone in the crook of my neck, and I’m sunburned from sitting outside for almost two hours, but she’s finally safe at a shelter.

While this saga was far longer than it should have been, and far more complex than it could have been, the reality is that without iOS, I would not have been able to guide my mother anywhere, to a shelter or back home. We had nobody local who could have helped her, and while I hope to never have to go through that stress again, I marvel at the fact that I was able to remotely guide her to three different places I had never seen, in a way that was about as stress-free for her as it could have been.

I should really build an app for this. Maybe some Twilio integration so folks can get real-time Siri directions over the phone if they don’t have an iPhone and fancy bluetooth car stereo integrations. I’m not sure yet, but it’s got me thinking about ways we could use all of the awesome technology behind this stuff and make it more useful for the elderly, hard of hearing, directionally challenged, etc – especially during high stress situations. Maybe integrate it with some positive reinforcements if the driver is going the right way. “That’s it. You’re on the right track – just 5 more minutes!”

About the author


I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me at, or read more...

By snipe
Snipe.Net Geeky, sweary things.

About Me

I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me at, or read more...

Get in Touch