Casaubon's Book

When the Power Goes Out

We’re just about at the one year anniversary of the Northeastern power outage that had many people out this way out for a week or two last year, and what’s the forecast up at our place? Snow, followed by sleet and icy rain and more ice. This seems like a recipe for trouble.

Being of a vaguely apocalyptic mindset, your blogiste is pretty good for a power outage, but it occurred to her that not everyone is probably ready. In fact, despite the fact that FEMA has *said* that in a crisis it may not be able to reach people immediately, despite the fact that an awful lot of Americans had extended outages last year, most Americans are woefully underprepared for an extended outage. My hope is that you will not be among them. So let’s go over the basics of getting ready.

1. Consider your water situation. The most serious problems caused by power outages are water related. If you are on a well and rely on electricity to pump water, or if the storm involves heavy rains or flooding and water contamination, you can expect to be without water. Everyone needs water, and you will be extremely unhappy without it, so use some common sense and get some. At a minimum, get some old soda or milk bottles, clean them, and fill them with water when you know a storm is approaching. You can get larger containers as well. You can also drink the water from your hot water heater.

If you know that you may lose power, it only makes sense to fill the bathtub (if your tub holds water), buckets and pots so you’ve got plenty.

Stored water may not taste great – and keeping hydrated and warm is important. A stock of tea, coffee, or cocoa, or some Hi-C or Tang can make the water palatable.

2. You either need a way to cook without power, or you need lots of food that doesn’t need cooking. You can cook outside on a grill or camp stove, but that won’t be too much fun in a snow or sleet storm. If it is warm, you can use a solar oven once the weather settles down, but that won’t help in a cold climate. If you have a woodstove, you can cook on top of it. Otherwise, some cans of sterno or a rocket stove (small homemade stove that uses tiny bits of biomass) are a good idea.

Have a thermos or two around, so that once you heat something – water, food, oatmeal, etc.. it stays warm.

3. If it is cold, you will need a way to keep warm. Bring in wood, or hook up your fuel source. A source of heat that doesn’t depend on electricity is a good idea, or plenty of blankets, pets on the bed and someone to cuddle with. If you have no heat source, you will particularly want that sterno or something that allows you to boil water, so that you can heat your insides with tea, cocoa or coffee. Wrap kids up well in multiple layers, and sleep with them, or put them together. Babies should sleep up against you.

Remember, it is easier to heat yourself than it is to heat the room – you can put a brick near the woodstove or heater, and then wrap it in cloth and put it in your bed or under your feet to keep warm. You can put a cat on your lap or a dog next to you, or snuggle up to a honey. You can move close to the stove.

Again, if you are sure you are going to lose power, it makes sense to turn up the heat beforehand, to slow the chilling of your home. Check on elderly neighbors if it gets cold – they can die comparatively easily from hypothermia.

Dress in layers. I know everyone says this, but you really should. At night in our cold old house, I layer cotton long johns under fleece footed pjs for the kids, and can put a robe on top of it. We like long johns under PJs or jeans or leggings under long, warm skirts, and multiple tops. Don’t forget to keep extremities warm.

4. Check out your lighting situation. Can you find your flashlight? Do you actually have batteries? Do you have oil and wicks for your oil lamps? If you have solar lights outside, you may be able to bring them inside during the evening. If you have notice, pick up extra batteries, and check your flashlight’s condition.

If your kids panic in the dark, make sure you have a flashlight for them and spare batteries, lightsticks, or a nightlight with batteries. This is also good if you are prone to tripping over stuff.

5. All this burnable stuff – wood heat, propane heat, candles, oil lamps used by folks who don’t use them every day ups your fire risk considerably. Check your smoke detector batteries and make sure you know how to use your fire extinguisher. Don’t leave open flames around children or pets – supervise them carefully.

6. Have a plan for hygeine. You can fill the tub to flush the toilet – remember, you get one freebie from what’s in the tank. It goes without saying that you should flush infrequently. Remember, the water you use for flushing doesn’t have to be clean – you can use your dishwater after washing dishes.

If you know you are likely to lose power, do dishes and laundry, so that they don’t pile up. If you use cloth diapers, consider picking up some disposables for the emergency if you are likely to be waterless.

Wash hands frequently, or use alcohol based hand sanitizer if you don’t have enough water to wash.

If you can’t flush, either put a garbage bag in the toilet and change it regularly, or set up humanure composting – find a place away from water sources and human habitation and collect human manure mixed with dry leaves, sawdust, shredded newspaper or some other high-carbon material. If you are in an urban area, you will probably want to set this up at the community level, and talk to your neighbors – remember, if they get sick, you probably will too.

A reserve of toilet paper is worth a lot.

7. Make sure you know how to use tools safety, and that you are careful when doing unaccustomed labor. Every year some people kill themselves using chainsaws for the first time, or give themselves a heart attack shovelling snow. If you are going to be doing more exertion than normal, and you can take asprin, you might want to take one. Otherwise, just take breaks and stop before you are totally exhausted. Wear appropriate clothing to the weather and the job you are doing. Stop if you get tired – that’s when you make mistakes.

Fill your gas tank before the storm – gas may be unavailable if the power outage is widespread.

Also make sure before the storm that you know how to shut off your natural gas and drain your pipes so that they don’t burst.

8. Have some food. If you have ever read this blog before, you should already have a reserve of food. If you haven’t, go get one. The reality is that people are often stuck in their homes without food for days or even weeks – it happens *all the time* and IMHO, there’s nothing wrong with taking help if you really need it, but it is a good deed to try not to need it, and to get out of the way so that the people who really can’t help themselves get help.

If your food is in the freezer, eat it in this order. First, eat what’s in the fridge, if you can’t find a cold but non-freezing spot outside (remember, you may have natural refrigeration). Then eat what’s in the freezer – but in the meantime, open it infrequently and cover it with heavy blankets to keep it as cold as possible. Food will last longer if your freezer is full, so you can freeze jugs of water, which you can then drink or use for washing. If you have a cookstove or grill, you can pressure can meat and other foods in the freezer, and if it is freezing outside, you can put food outside (if you have bears or roaming dogs, do what you need to to protect it). Otherwise, invite the neighbors in for dinner.

If you’ve been reading me, you probably already have a supply of needed medications, but if you don’t, get prescriptions filled before the storm. Make sure you have basic stuff like bandaids and painkillers and a first aid kit. If you have a medically fragile person in your home, notify your police or fire department and your local utility company, so that they will put you on the priority list or check on you. If you know about medically fragile people in your community, check in on them.

9. Be prepared to take in refugees – people who get trapped away from home, people who have no heat or food or water. If you can put aside a little extra for them, great. If not, even a little companionship, shared body heat and a cup of tea are worth a lot in a crisis.

10. Try to relax and enjoy yourself. Sure, it may be a pain, but it is also an adventure. Everyone will be a lot less freaked out if you make it as fun as possible – eat all the ice cream before it melts, play board games, sing, make jokes about the peanut butter sandwiches. Don’t panic – human beings survived without electricity for a long time. You’ll be fine.

This is the short version – the longer and better version of this comes in Kathy Harrison’s wonderful book _Just in Case_ – where she discusses all kinds of readiness in warm and reassuring and helpful terms.

Have an easy storm!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 R E G
    December 8, 2009

    Good list

    May I add … Please be prepared to just stay put. No power means no traffic signals. Being bored is no excuse to be out on the road.

    Last summer, after a destructive storm ran through my neighbourhood, I was appalled at the number of “disaster tourists” we got. Seriously – we floated the idea of setting up a toll booth to pay for the chain saw rental.

  2. #2 Greenpa
    December 8, 2009

    The storm is here, in Minnesota. We started battening hatches yesterday.

    This afternoon Smidgen nagged several times for “a movie! because I’m sick!” Alas, that’s now a favorite ploy, and she does have a cough and a moderate fever.

    So I explained at length (she’s 4.8) that a storm was coming, and we’d be unable to get off the farm for several days. And since it was cloudy/snowing, we weren’t getting any power from the solar panels. And we wouldn’t be able to buy gas for the back up generator.

    She looked at the snow out the window, and realizing it all kind of for the first time, asked “How will we be able to do.. ANYthing?” with eyes slightly wide.

    “We have plenty of wood. We have food. And water. We just don’t have unlimited electricity right now. How about if I read to you instead?” Usually reading in the middle of the day is limited; chores to do.

    Now we’re snugged down, and I’m reading her “Farmer Boy”. The house is warm and quiet because the snow is piling up on the roof.

    Feels good. Happy blizzard. :-)

  3. #3 Suzie
    December 9, 2009

    Might I suggest a simple transistor radio (hand-crankable and/or battery-powered) can come in very handy for emergency information. Hand-crankable lamps are great in these situations too.

    Having an old-fashioned hard-wired land line that will still be usable if the power goes out, rather than solely electricity-dependent telephone handsets and cell phones, is wise.

    As for cell phones, there are hand-crankable cell-phone chargers, and don’t forget your car cell-phone charger.

    While we’re on that, many cars have On-Star or other satellite phones, and radios, that can be used if needed in a pinch. (Just don’t use your car as your source of heat unless you are stuck in it and have absolutely no other choice.)

  4. #4 Keith Farnish
    December 9, 2009

    Thank you, Sharon. Very useful ideas, and would apply to all sorts of emergency situations.

    Worth mentioning the importance of having water butts – the water can be used for flushing, and potentially sterilised for drinking if kept covered. Oh, and *lots* of matches.

    K.

  5. #5 Peak Oil Hausfrau
    December 9, 2009

    We published an (abbreviated) article similar to this in our neighborhood newsletter recently – emphasizing that “FEMA recommends” part of it, along with the admonition not to overexert oneself digging snow (a leading cause of heart attacks during winter storms) and to be careful walking on ice (my mother had to have brain surgery after a concussion from head-meets-sidewalk during the last ice storm).

    I would add that if power outages are common, one source of light that might be helpful is one of those outdoorsman headlights. Since they are usually LED, 3 AAA batteries are supposed to last close to a year of consistent use. I just ordered one from REI yesterday that got good reviews.

  6. #6 Tommykey
    December 9, 2009

    I generally try to make a point of not letting the gas tank in my car go below half in the event we have to evacuate.

    I have glow sticks, because once you activate them, they will stay on all night so you don’t have to fumble around looking for them, whereas with flashlights, you can’t leave them on or else the batteries will run out.

    I purchased a small camp stove and ten butane canisters for heating food and have ten sterno cans and a sterno can stove in reserve. Plus, we have a supply of emergency food and water that could last several weeks if necessary.

    For warmth, I recently bought a kerosene heater and a 5 gallon can of kerosene.

    Also have first aid kit and portable radio and hygiene items. Though we haven’t had a winter storm on Long Island of the magnitude to cause a black out since I was a child over 30 years ago, I’m pretty well prepared for any short term emergency. The only other item that could come in handy, though I balk at the expense, is a generator.

  7. #7 dewey
    December 9, 2009

    Unless a family has someone dependent on medical equipment or some such, I think buying a private generator is a pure waste of money. Billions of people live without electricity full-time. If the power is out briefly, surely you can survive a few days with far cheaper measures. In the doomer fantasy where the power was out long-term, you’d have to get used to a life without it sooner or later, and in the meantime running a generator would just put up a sign that says “Well-heeled survivalist, worth robbing.”

  8. #8 Pine Ridge
    December 9, 2009

    For the kids, get a few of those solar outdoor path lights, he cheap, dim kind, not the nice ones… I picked up a few this summer to light our steps and the step into the chicken coop so I wouldn’t trip over our cats in the dark (They are trying to kill me, I swear) And it turns out they are very handy for night lights for kids. I can put one in each room and one in the bathroom and don’t have to explain for hours why I won’t let them have lit candles in their bedroom.

    Our generator is not a waste of money, it gets used as a power source several times a year, mostly to keep the fridge and chest freezer going, but we lose power a lot and often during summer storms when keeping things frozen outdoors won’t do :) Also, the generator comes in handy when we are working on the barn, and even when we built some fences last summer. Oh, it’s portable of course, lol, I couldn’t justify a whole house generator either.

  9. #9 Lyle
    December 11, 2009

    If you keep your cars gas tank full you can use the car radio for information, and probably go quite a while until the gas tank and battery run down. In fact you could look at a flashlight that can recharge from the lighter in the car as well. I would not advise going over a 50 watts from the car to keep the life of the gas/battery as long as possible.

  10. #10 gen
    December 12, 2009

    Timely reminders. We have a radio/flashlight that is the hand crank style. It can light the way, keep us connected with what is going on outside our neighborhood, and give kids who have been without their usual entertainments someting useful and fun to do.
    I second the thermos idea. Fuel needs to be used judiciously in power outages, and keeping your water, soup, tea,etc, hot, is very helpful. You can also let your oatmeal, brown rice, or wheat berries ‘cook’ overnight in one. An inexpensive, nutritious, and fuel-saving way to eat.

  11. Handy post! I LOVE our wood stove and wouldn’t be without one. We also have a well that opens so we have access to the water in an emergency, which can be boiled if necessary. We grow a lot of our own food, stored in a cold cellar and have a continuous supply of our own eggs, so we are ok for food in a power outage. We also stock up on candles.

    What do people do in an extended power outage who live in the city without wood stoves and gardens? Scary!

  12. #12 nick
    January 19, 2011

    I second the thermos idea. Fuel needs to be used judiciously in power outages, and keeping your water etc, hot, is very helpful. http://www.mezzi.com/laptop-cases/ you can’t flush, either put a garbage bag in the toilet and change it regularly,

  13. #13 manager
    January 19, 2011

    Our house is warm and quiet because the snow is piling up on the roof. it is easier to http://www.mezzi.com heat yourself than it is to heat the room – you can put a brick near the woodstove or heater thats a much better option than trying to heat an area.

    Many cars have On-Star or other satellite phones, and radios, that can be used if needed in a pinch.

  14. #14 jimbob
    January 19, 2011

    most Americans are woefully underprepared for an extended outage. My hope is that you will not be among them. get a basic survival kit from http://www.onlineforextradingstrategy.com together like I have and you’ll be much better prepared. Billions of people live without electricity full-time we’re just too used to the soft life

  15. #15 managed
    January 19, 2011

    we floated the idea of setting up a toll booth http://www.onlineforextradingstrategy.com/forex-demo-account.html for renting equiopment like tents etc. thats what I think anyway and it never hurts to be well prepared for the worst. it just makes sense when you see the number of storms and weathere vents happening these days. we coulod all be underwater in a few days anyway the way global warming is going.

  16. #16 nick
    January 19, 2011

    Food will last longer if your freezer is full, so you can freeze jugs of water, which you can then drink or use for washing. http://www.purchaseinsurance.info If you have a medically fragile person in your home, notify your police or fire department and your local utility company, so that they will put you on the priority list or check on you. If you can put aside a little extra for them, great. Shared body heat and a cup of tea are worth a lot in a crisis

  17. #17 Heidrek
    January 19, 2011

    most americans are woefully underprepared for an extended outage. My hope is that you will not be among them. get a basic survival kit from http://www.mortgagelasvegasnevada.com/cash-out-refinance.php together like I have and you’ll be much better prepared. Billions of people live without electricity full-time we’re just too used to the soft life

    we floated the idea of setting up a toll booth for renting equiopment like tents etc. thats what I think anyway and it never hurts to be well prepared for the worst. it just makes sense when you see the number of storms and weathere vents happening these days. we coulod all be underwater in a few days anyway the way global warming is going.

  18. #18 jimmy
    January 19, 2011

    If the power is out briefly, surely you can survive a few days without electrical devices. http://www.mortgagelasvegasnevada.com/bad-credit-mortgages.php like fuel rationing. we floated the idea of setting up a toll booth for renting equiopment like tents etc. thats what I think anyway and it never hurts to be well prepared for the worst. it just makes sense when you see the number of storms and weathere vents happening these days. we coulod all be underwater in a few days anyway the way global warming is going.It’s really good top have a solid back up option when things go bad, and lets face it they probably will sooner or later.

  19. #19 jimbob
    January 19, 2011

    surely you can survive a few days without electrical devices. http://www.onlineforextradingstrategy.com/automated-forex-trading.html like fuel rationing. we floated the idea of setting up a toll booth for renting equiopment like tents etc. thats what I think anyway and it never hurts to be well prepared for the worst.

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