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Thursday, September 18, 2008

How to Plan For/Survive an Extended Electrical Blackout

I’ve experienced quite a few short term and long term weather related power outages and blackouts. The worst one was in 2004, when an ice storm took down power lines and left most of my city in darkness for a week. Christmas week. With a big plan for the worst and hope for the best, I give you five things to consider and plan for when the power lines go down and electricity is out for an unknown extended period.


1. Consider Shelter
Staying at Home
· If it’s a summer blackout, it may be too hot to stay inside your house. The easiest thing to do may be to just grab an extra chair or blanket and step outside. Chances are your neighbors are doing the same. This may be a great time to get to know your neighbors a little better and do an impromptu block party, or play a game of Frisbee, baseball, or cards.

· Even if you use natural gas to heat your home, you may not have heat during a winter electrical outage. Some natural gas furnaces use an electrical fan to blow the heat through the ductwork to heat your home. Therefore, even if the heater may still be working, without electricity you’re not going to have the little fan that. And without a working fan, you may have a cold house. (I found out about this one the hard way.)




· If you need to heat your home during a cold weather blackout, be very careful when using kerosene/propane space heaters, natural gas, or wood burning fireplaces, etc. The last thing you need to deal with is an accidental fire or carbon monoxide leak during a power emergency.

· If it’s a winter blackout try keeping extra warm by wearing a warm sweater/extra layer of clothing/long underwear; snuggling up with a blanket, a family member, or the family pet. I have it good authority that dogs make excellent lap warmers!

· In cold weather, open all of the inside water facets so a small trickle of water through to prevent your pipes from freezing.

· It should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway, it is dangerous to try to heat your home with a gas kitchen stove or to operate propane camping stove, barbeque grill, or generator inside your home or even inside an attached garage. This is true even if the garage door is open, carbon monoxide can leak into to your home via the door to your home. in other words: Don’t.

Leaving Your Home
· Remember your pets! If it’s too hot or too cold for humans to stay in your home, then it’s not good for your pets either. Take them with you when you leave your home. If you make arrangements to stay with a friend/family member, ask them if you can bring your pets.

· If you plan to stay at a hotel, check if they will allow pets. Many hotels that do not normally allow pets, may suspend that policy during an emergency. If this is the case, be sure to be extra vigilant about cleaning up after your pet after they, well…you know.

· Some community shelters may allow pets most may not. Check in during a non-emergency time what the policies would be in your area. It may be possible to keep your pet safe at your veterinarian’s or temporarily at a local animal shelter.


2. Consider Your Food and Medication Needs
Preventing Food Spoilage
· Keep the refrigerator door closed to keep your food from thawing and defrosting. If you’re lucky enough to have a cooler and find ice (remember everyone around you is going to be looking for ice too, so it may be available to you when you need it) prioritize what food and medication (if applicable) you need to keep cold in the cooler and what food you may be able to eat/drink right away.
  1. A block or bag of ice will last approximately 24 hours before it melts and you’ll need to replace it.
  2. Blocks of ice will melt more slowly and keep things colder a little longer than a bag of ice cubes. However, in an emergency, it’s tacky to be fussy about such trivialities – it’s best to take what you can get and be grateful
· According to the Health department:
  1. Refrigerated food will keep in a closed unpowered refrigerator for 8 hours.
  2. Frozen Food will keep in a closed unpowered freezer for 24 hours
· If your food is warmer than 40 degrees F, (you can use a meat thermometer to check the temperature) and/or you have exceeded the time deadlines stated above, throw the food away because harmful unseen, unsmellable, and untasteable bacteria may be growing in your food and you could get sick.
· It’s not a good idea to do the “hey, taste this – does it taste like its gone bad to you?” test when you reach the keep/toss two food deadline (even to someone that you don’t like.) Just grit your teeth and throw the food away. Also, be sure to throw away condiments like dairy-based bottled salad dressings, mayonnaise, etc.
· Check your renter/homeowner's insurance policy because it might compensate you for the food loss. In that case, take a photo of the food and make a list of all of the items you had to throw away.
· Composting the spoiled fruit and veg (do not compost meat and dairy products) may take a little of the sting out of how much money you are literally throwing away (hey at least you’re going to make fertilizer out of that stuff you bought and can’t use for food) but brace yourself; it’s still going to hurt.
· A more fun alternative may be to fire up the gas or charcoal grill (completely outside please for safety) and cook and eat as much food as you can before it spoils. This is an excellent time to get to know the neighbors and have a community BBQ, because chances are, they are in the same boat as you.

Preparing Food
· If you have a gas stove in your kitchen, you should be able to cook on it as normal. However, if your gas stove has some features powered by electricity (such as a timer or clock) it goes without saying they those features will not be working.

· If you have a propane gas, camping stove/grill or charcoal grill use them outside to prepare hot meals. It is possible to boil water on a gas grill but it takes a lot of time and fuel to do it (again experience talking here.) However, if you’re desperate for a cup of hot coffee, it may be worth it.

· If you don’t have the means to cook a hot meal, take a look around your kitchen and cupboards to see if you have anything to make a cold meal with, say peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a side of a home made three-bean salad? Alternatively, maybe you should consider using up that gallon of milk in the cooler and gave a bowl of cereal for dinner. Get creative.

· Of course, you could always try to find an open restaurant or shelter that’s selling/offering hot meals to those who need it.


3. Consider How You Will Light the Night
Eventually, it’s going to get dark and you’ll need to see where you’re going or you’ll bump your nose on a wall in your house (ask me how I know this.) Hopefully you’ll have a flashlight and
working batteries within easy reach.

  • On the other hand, if you’re a citizen of LisaLand, you’ll have a flashlight that contains dead batteries and you won’t have spares in your freezer because you kept putting off buying new ones. Then Murphy’s Law will give you a double smack when you realize that you have every other type of spare battery around the house except the kind that you need for your dead flashlight and go to the store just to find out that the rest of the city beat you to the store and bought every spare battery in the store. Learn from my mistake. Keep a spare set of batteries in your freezer (so they will last longer) or a set of rechargeable batteries powered up on a charger.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a working battery operated flashlight or rechargeable camping lantern turn it on sparingly in order to save the batteries for as long as you can as a precaution.
  • I keep a rechargeable camping lantern plugged into the wall at all times, just in case. Yes, it sucks up a little vampire power but to me it’s worth it because I’ve been in the situation where I’ve been sitting in the dark and forced to stare at a rechargeable lantern with a dead battery as a form of entertainment. A little FYI here: No amount of wishing or mind control is going to recharge a run down rechargeable camping lantern or battery without the help of electricity. I’m just sayin’…
  • Other Lighting Suggestions
    · Crank powered flashlights (Side note: Experience tells me that the pump powered Forever Flashlights, while a fun science experiment for the kiddos, are pretty useless for long term use. i.e. other than to use to keep from stumbling around the house while you’re gathering your other nonelectrical lighting alternatives from around the house.)
    · Propane gas camping lanterns (use with caution)
    · Candles (use with caution and never leave a candle burning in a room unattended.)
    · Solar powered garden lights. If you have solar powered garden lights, let them charge up in the sun during the day and bring them into the house at night. This is a safer lighting alterative than using candles - especially if you have rambunctious children or pets. (I wish I could take full credit for this genius idea but I can’t.)

4. Consider How You Will Communicate With the Outside World

Out of all of the problems and inconveniences that arise when you lose electricity, I think that losing easy access to communication is the worst. When the ice storm knocked out our electricity for a week, I couldn’t access news reports on what was going on, how long it projected to last or what services are available to those in need via Internet, TV and in my case the radio. That’s because I donated our only battery operated radio to a charity shop in a fit of “let’s clear some of the clutter out of The Condo.” Don’t be me, get a radio and some batteries, and keep them just in case you ever need them.

After that storm, on a whim, I bought an uber super duper battery operated weather radio. It runs on AC power (so I can use it as an actual radio in a nonblackout emergency), has a built in rechargeable battery (charged each time I plug it into an electrical outlet. Like the camping lantern I mentioned above, I also keep the weather radio plugged into an outlet), can use traditional batteries, and when all other batteries lose their charge, I can recharge the built in battery with a crank recharger. My radio picks up the national emergency weather station, local radio, and TV stations. I can use it to recharge my cell phone. I can also use it as a flashlight. I think the only thing this radio doesn’t do it make me a hot cup of cocoa while I’m waiting for the lights to come back on.
The radio cost $50 which and seemed a bit like overkill until a year later when I found myself in huddled in the utility room with tornado sirens blaring, a thunderstorm rumbling, (and the dog subsequently barking at each thunderclap) and the electricity was out for four hours one evening. I was happy that I had the uber radio then to keep me entertained (from the local TV and radio stations) and informed (from the local news stations and the national weather service radio channel.) If you don’t have a battery operated radio I suggest that you get one (it doesn’t have to be a swanky expensive one like mine, just something that will allow you to access the local news when you’ll need it most) or put it on your holiday/birthday wish list. You might be glad you did.

5. Consider What You'll Do While You’re Waiting
Basically, you’re going to be in a situation of hurry up and wait so you might as well make the best of it. Above all, be patient and realize how fortunate you are even if you’re in a situation where things are bad. Unfortunately someone else probably has it worse for example all of the brave emergency personnel who have to work outside in the dangerous conditions to restore services and help you and yours.
Be kind and reach out to others who need it. Find something fun and different to do while you’re waiting for the lights to come back on. Here are a few suggestions:

· Read a book
· Play board games, cards, or if it’s daylight get a neighborhood pickup Frisbees/basketball/softball game together
· Clean up storm damage around your house or help your neighbors with their clean up efforts (if it’s safe to do so)
· Smooch with your sweetie on the sofa like teenagers
· Alternatively, you may choose to work on little craft projects. For example, when we suffered through our weeklong blackout, it was Christmas week. The electric company was working like crazy to restore power to the city. I figured that they needed all the help they could get. Therefore, I decided to help them out by invoking a higher power - Santa.

Photobucket
My sign read “all I want for Christmas is Electricity (and a pony)” (Who doesn’t want a pony sometime in their life?!)
Because I believe in Santa.

And you know what? It worked!

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