Always with the Preps

The most important thing about the power outages in the mid-Atlantic is that no one expected them to be this bad, so no one was ready.  The storms on Friday were stronger than expected, so no one, including the power company, was prepared.  That meant that for 3 million homes, the loss of electricity was a total shock, arriving in the middle of a heat wave.  Almost a million households still lack power five days later.

For many of those households, had this been a blizzard or a hurricane, bottles of water would have been purchased, gas cans filled up, prescriptions refilled,  pantries stocked.  While I think there's a lot lacking from most people's ordinary pre-storm supermarket runs, at least they offer a measure of preparedness.  But that's not something that happened here.

For many people, including the 24 dead, the storm was a disaster. Something good, however, can still come out of this - the realization that preparedness is not something you do occasionally when the weather forecasts a major storm, but something that becomes part of your life.  Because otherwise, there is simply no way to be ready for the myriad of small disasters that happen in ordinary lives.

Blizzards and hurricanes come expected.  But many disasters simply don't.  Earthquakes, tsunamis, random power outages (like the one in 2004 that took out much of the power for the Eastern Seaboard), terrorist attacks and simple weird stuff happen when they happen - and no one can know when to be ready.  Moreover, the ordinary personal disasters that strike us are the ones we are best able to prepare for when things are good - the job loss, the personal illness, the fire - those are things you can only get ready for during times of comparative stability.

This is a very different attitude than the "let's stock up on bottled water at the grocery store when the storm is coming" relationship to preparedness.  Frankly, it is a heck of a lot less hectic.  There are no trips to the grocery store before a storm - I make a point of staying out of stores during the crazy times. I don't spend money on bottled water, either, since like just about everyone in the US who isn't Amish, water comes out of my tap.  I fill up used Soda bottles with water. In summer, I use them to top off the freezer so we  have both ice and cold water to drink as it defrosts.  Keeping the freezer full at the low point of summer (when last year's harvest is mostly used up and this year's isn't in) just makes sense.  In winter, we use natural coolth to keep things from spoiling.

There are things to do when storms are coming (and, in fact, we've got severe thunderstorms expected here).  In winter or spring, we bring some wood inside to ensure dry and accessible wood.  In summer I fill the buckets and bins with water for watering animals, washing dishes and bathing.  I catch up on dishes and laundry if I'm behind and give the kids baths.  I wash my own hair.  All these things CAN be done without power at our house, but it is easier to do them first and start ready.

In many ways, preparing for power outages is easier than trying to outsmart and avoid them with technology.  Even if you make the race to the last generator at Home Depot, there are a lot of problems.  First, there's the gas - do the local stations have power for their pumps?  Your $1600 generator isn't worth a lot without $4 gallon gas.  Second, do you know how to use it safely?  Every major outage involves someone dying because they thought they did - and didn't.  Inadequate power cords, refilling while it is on and placing your generator somewhere that can cause carbon monoxide poisoning are big issues.  Frankly, I just don't worry much when our power goes out - even on the hottest days, we'll miss the fans, but we can camp out in the best insulated spots in the house and keep comfortable in a host of ways.

Whether you are going to use a generator or a rocket stove, the key is to know what you are doing - and the only way to do that is to integrate it into your life enough to have some practice before you need it.  The same goes with storing food and water, keeping cool in the heat or warm in the winter, dealing with lighting, having a supply of medications, etc... What really ensures security isn't a rush to the store, but a plan, practice and purpose that makes being prepared part of your daily life.

If you are learning this lesson the hard way, my sympathies - I think most of us learned it that way.  If I can help someone figure it out BEFORE the outage, well, so much the better for all of us.  Just remember, it happens to all of us sooner or later.




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Hey Sharon,
I love the post, as usual. We're pretty prepared for power outages, but here in Alabama, 90% of the homes built in the modern era (i.e, since about 1950) are not set up to be lived in when the power's out. When the whole city lost power for a week after some storms last year, it was only April and the hottest day was in the lower 80s; our house climbed close to 90.
When power is lost in the summer done here, people die; sometimes lots of them. It's been 106+ outside for most of the past week, not counting the heat index. Inside, without power, our house would have been close to 120. What do you recommend for people who are stuck living in modern houses in hot climates for the time being?

Great post. Too bad I can't read it because my power is out.

By Whomever1 (not verified) on 04 Jul 2012 #permalink

Rebecca, while still using power technology, you might want to see about rigging up some simple fans to run off of marine or car batteries. If you can do this, then the next step might be rigging up a swamp cooler if your humidity allows.

Some other ideas:

Figure what rooms stay the coolest. It might be a couple as the sun changes. Don't forget to try the basement if you have one.

Consider some sort of shade for the windows, outside if possible. I would make the shades and leave the mounts installed before hand. If you have the cash, nice awnings could help on a more permanent basis. Shades for lower levels could be permanent landscape features like trellised plants or standing screens, or even trees or takk shrubs long term.

A tub or kiddie pool, in shade or inside, filled with water would be good for quick cooling dips. A wet cloth on the head and neck and a cool soak of the feet can feel wonderful for a really quick comfort cool. This also makes sure you have some tepid water if someone is overheating.

See if you can open and shut windows and doors to create some convection currents in the house.

Screen in a porch or get a screen house for sleeping.

Cook outside.

Rebecca, bowl of water for your feet to stick in. Sleep under a wet sheet if it cools you, otherwise it's too humid. Set aside more than the average amount of water to drink for a week so you can keep hydrated. Try wearing linen or cotton clothing as that will help your body cool itself. Loose clothing also helps. Tight waistbands and skinny jeans aren't helpful. Put water in a kiddie pool in the shade and go sit as often as you need to cool. Your body, outside of children, ill and elderly, CAN adjust if kept cool, hydrated and you don't do physical heavy labor. Pay attention to how hot your hands and feet feel. They will warm up first if you're overheating. put them in water if they're feeling hot or swollen.

If you have money, a little bit at a time works, the first thing to do is to either purchase or sew, like I did, insulating curtains for your south and west facing windows. Install awnings over your windows also helps. Foil or reflective window film helps. Close windows and curtains during the day, open them at night.

Longer term: If you have someone in your circle that can help you - insulate your attic. Close off all attic bypasses. This is where your bathroom fan is vented up and through your attic. Usually it is very poorly sealed. Same for most holes from the living space of the house into the attic. If you have nothing but duct tape and a bunch of plastic bags from the store stuff the bags in around the tube (round tube/square hole is very common) and then make a duct tape seal around the top of that. If you can afford the cans of spray foam are excellent. Then fill your attic with insulation. Spray foam is excellent but expensive. Blown in stuff can be done by a homeowner with a few friends or cousins over to help and the blower can be rented for a day or so for not too much money. This can help keep the heat off.

Paint your house white, or a very light color. Insulate the walls. This can be done room by room as you have money. I know this is the hard way. I've been insulating rooms one at a time for 5 years now and have a ways to go. We get the money to do a room and we tear off the outside wall, replace the window (50 plus years with rotted wood) insulate the wall, put on sheetrock. If I were you start with the walls that get the most sun during the hot part of the day. Usually in the northern hemisphere that is the south or west walls.

If you get storm damage and have to replace your roof get a white roof, metal if you can afford the extra above what the insurance company will cover. It will pay for itself in lesser airconditioning costs the rest of the time. We have a white roof and do not have and are unwilling to afford central air (20,000 plus for a retrofit, we also are on steam heat so we're a corner case). The white roof means our house is livable in our current 90-105 degree weather. We are having trouble on the 3rd floor but decamped to the 1st floor with a ceiling fan and a stand fan for the bedroom down here. Which means our office and bedroom have been abandoned for a week. Small price to pay for not having airconditioning.

If it gets worse we'll be in the basement. I don't know if this helps but it might be a start to get you thinking about options. Good luck and stay hydrated :D

Karen - cook outside!! Good call. I also like the trellis idea.

cattle panels and hops are a quick way to get walls covered with green shade. Either that or grapes, given a few years to cover. Aim for the south and west sides also. That takes prep as in it won't save you this next week or two but given a month and the prep you'll be set for all of next year ...


Rebecca, as a fellow Alabamian, I sympathize. My 1962 house has deep overhangs and is (now) well insulated, but cross breezes are non-existent. It's really hard to pull the cool air in when the mercury dips -- fans help but require AC. With nighttime temps in the upper 70's, I'm not even bothering because it brings the humidity in, too.

Planting lots of large vegetation near your house, especially to the south will, at least when it gets big enough to affect your micro-climate. Cities and power companies and other groups often have events where they give away free shade trees.

Deep shade in all the rooms helps a lot, either outside or inside. Those double cell cellular blinds are very effective but expensive.

Before doing any kind of insulating or modifications, borrow or invest in one of those laser thermometers. On a hot day (or a cold one), it can really help you pinpoint the most troublesome spots that need attention, be they the windows, ceiling, gaps around the electrical outlets, etc. It really helped me prioritize my efforts. If you are in the Huntsville area, I will be happy to lend you mine for as long as you need it.

(And FYI, paying a pro to do my insulation was several hundred dollars cheaper than DIY. Price your improvements carefully.)

Your comment about water coming out of the tap made me think of all those people for whom fire comes out of the tap, thanks to fracking. :)

Next general category I am working on is outdoor cooking for summertime. I have some items that I have used, a solar cooker and rocket stove. I need to practice more. For me, just remembering to pay attention to weather forecasts and plan meals based on the weather as well as what's ready in the garden will be progress.

As I said below in my post to the Monbiot article, I am going to sit out 2012 because there is just too much noise, hype, agendas and ego out there to get a clear signal these days, so I am just going to sit back and watch and listen.

So, as far as prepping goes, the most important preparation is to prepare for death, yours and the people around you. In other words, spiritual preparation. As I stated below, my field of expertise is transpersonal psychology, comparative esoteric spirituality and psychedelic research, and over the past two years i have been seeing, and hearing about, many, many people having tremendous initiatory, mystical, visionary and transcendental experience, and I don think this is coincidental, trivial and inconsequential. But unless I feel i have something very important to add to the discussion, I wont be offering any opinions until Jan. 2013. Sharon and everyone, here's wishing you a safe and productive 2012.

Even here in Minnesota the temps reached 100 Degrees and the 4th of July celebration at our neighborhood park ended early due to the heat. Grape vines grow very easily and closing up your house in the morning helps too. A cheap solution are kiddie swimming pools and cool cloths on the forehead. The newspaper reports that most stores in our area of sold out of air conhditioners.

Sitting here on another damp, dreary morning looking at the pool of water that's collected in my back garden, I haven't got much to offer re: keeping cool in high summer.

However, I second the everyday prepping advice.

We don't tend to have dramatic weather here, though this summer places not too far away have had flash floods, giant hailstones and tornadoes (British not American sized ones!), so you never know...
We do get power cuts and water pipe leaks fairly regularly though, and every time neighbours have to borrow (refilled pop) bottles of water, flasks of hot water, our non-electric phone (terrible mobile reception in the village) or drive to the nearest town with power for a takeaway.

My preparedness is nowhere near where I'd like it to be, but minor interruptions at least are no hassle.

We went through so many electric outages before the 2006 derechos here that for us losing electricity for a total of 7 days was not a big deal. We cooked on a BBQ pit, scrounged enough ice to keep the contents of the fridge/freezer unit eatable (not easy because the gas stations in the affected area didn't have generators), used flashlights to see at night, and fortunately it had cooled off to average July temperatures, so we wouldn't have run the AC even if we had had electricity. We have a 1928 house with a porch roof over the south face and large shade trees in the neighbors' yards to the south and west, and it had been sealed and insulated the year before. We were quite comfortable during the electric outage; both of us missed the quiet when the electricity came back on and all the neighbors' AC compressors restarted. I was glad to have the fridge back for food safety, but I consider the AC a luxury, not a necessity, so I am always prepared to do without it.

This summer we had not turned on the central AC at all when we left on a vacation on June 27, despite the interior house temp climbing as high as 86F at one point. It helped that because of the ongoing drought, the humidity had been low enough to drop the nighttime temperature into the 60s to low 70s even when the daytime high hit the upper 90s. Because we kept the windows open and have a good cross breeze through the house, we had no trouble sleeping at night at these temperatures. But St. Louis has gotten record-breaking hot since then, with 7 straight days of 100F+ temperatures, as high as 108F last week and up to 105F yesterday with correspondingly warmer nighttime lows in the mid 70s to nearly 80F. So we turned on the central AC when we returned home the afternoon of July 2. But we have the temperature set to 82F because we don't want to lose all our adaptation to heat. Plus we need to save money to put toward the water bill in order to keep many plantings alive. By next Monday we'll be back to the usual 90F high - 70F low July weather, and the AC will be turned off until the next heat warning or autumn's arrival, whichever happens first.

You are right to stress being prepared for loss of electricity at any time. And especially, don't expect your local stores or gas stations to have generator backup, so make sure you have everything you need long before you need it. In 2004, in the aftermath of Hurricane Charlie, my parents found their nearest grocery store didn't have backup power (though it does now). In 2006, few of our local stores and gas stations had backup. I don't think that has changed much. I store a lot of dry foods and some canned foods and have plenty to eat on the stem in the garden, but we don't have a chest freezer because I don't want to lose the stored food in the event of electric loss. We do have enough cooler space for the entire contents of our (small) fridge and freezer unit, but I already know that getting ice could be problematic so we'd eat up the contents fast and just cook enough to eat at a single meal after that. If we lose electricity in really hot weather, we have cots we can set up in the basement to sleep on. Since we have everything in place to do fine without electricity for quite awhile, I never worry about losing it. This frees up a lot of mental energy for more important things.

It is interesting comparing the east coast attitudes towards preparedness (where I have lived for several years, in some prime spots in the hurricane belt) vs the west coast attitudes (where I grew up and live now). The natural disaster of most concern here is earthquake, which neither has a season nor any kind of advance warning, so people who are serious about preparedness here now appreciate the fact that we always have to be ready because we truly don't know when the crisis will hit. I can think of several people I knew in the southeast who were very much prepared for hurricanes when they came, but would have been nearly helpless in the face of something that came with no warning.

On a slightly different note, one thing that may help with heat waves in places that truly get hot is simply to cut down your personal reliance on air conditioning and really try to acclimate to summer heat. When we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, my wife and I observed that we seemed to be better acclimated to the weather than many who had lived there there entire lives because we refused to stop outdoor activities and hide out in the air conditioning because it was too hot. I wonder if part of the shock of power outages during heat waves is that many people live a lifestyle that is utterly dependent on air conditioned and dehumidified air?

By Roy Smith (not verified) on 05 Jul 2012 #permalink

A good reason to always keep your house tidy, the spare room ready and the washing up and ironing done.

(Look's at piles of ironing and dirty dishes)

Meh. I'm in England, i'll get to it tomorrow.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 05 Jul 2012 #permalink

I was astounded by how much difference my incremental preps have made in this past week without electricity or phone. I had tiled and painted a room in the basement and renamed it the "summer bedroom." We've used it instead of AC at night for three years and were almost down the stairs when we heard the train coming. Thirty feet of the crown of the tree next door twisted off and bounced into our front yard. Took off eaves trough, porch railings, and front door trim without breaking any windows on the house. The car was not so lucky--shattered both windshields.
Most days we got up early and worked 5-9:30am. Went later the day the next door neighbors offered their chainsaw and help cutting the huge tree chunks.
Cold showers, reading and resting at midday, windows open during the night to decompress the top floor. Many good (and one bad) meal from the solar oven. I parked it in the front yard to intrigue passers-by, and treated the older neighbors to dinner in return for letting us eat on their breezy screen porch. Half the hood left for hotels, but the rest of us did ok. Not much in my fridge needed refrigeration. I've decided not to send my husband to the store for meat--he overbuys and we had to eat chicken for four days in a row. The beans stayed frozen and the thawing ice was welcome as drinking water. Lots of kraut to enliven potato salads. Did bucket laundry when the sheets got ripe.
All in all, painful. I did notice that I slowed down considerably. Need to think more about how to can during this kind of weather. My worst moment was tucking into bed in the dark on the fourth night and realizing that one of my pumpkins had imploded and was dripping onto my pillow. Threw the pumpkin onto the compost heap, wiped down the shelf, flipped the pillow, and went to sleep. See laundry above. My best moment was giving the power line guys solar oven chocolate chip cookies, right from the oven. Missed opportunity--the tree in our yard was a tulip poplar, not good for the woodstove, but I realized there were oak and maple down in the neighborhood. Shortly after I started dragging home branches of a size that would not require splitting, the trucks were picking them up. In the future I'll start scrounging for firewood sooner.

By Mary in Maryland (not verified) on 06 Jul 2012 #permalink

TYPO--I meant all in all, not painful. Also, we keep the AC set at 80, and with the attic insulation and keeping the shades drawn, the house stayed 82-89 without the AC, 76-80 in the basement.

By Mary in Maryland (not verified) on 06 Jul 2012 #permalink

Thanks for all the advice, everyone. We're renters, so we're rather limited on what we can do right now. We're about to move to a new place that was built about 100 years ago and is better designed to take the heat (I'm worried about winter, though.) We have some land where we are slowly building a small passive solar house, but it will be a couple of years before we move in there.

Good idea of keeping water bottles frozen to keep freezer colder. However, the water should not be used for drinking because freezing the plastic of soda bottles causes the plastic to break down and enters the water when thawing. Mason jars or other glass jars could be used if careful not to overfill.

Filling the tub is something we did when we lived in a wooded area with overhead lines that always seemed to lose power when it stormed. The well pump ran on electric so we used the tub water to flush the toilet. The water was heavy iron so we did not drink it. We always had jugs of drinking water on hand.

We cut up those $2 mylar "emergency blankets" and put them on the windows (especially the skylights). Ugly, but reflected a whole heck of a lot of sunlight out of the house before it could heat up the living room.

"Earthquakes, tsunamis, random power outages (like the one in 2004 that took out much of the power for the Eastern Seaboard), terrorist attacks and simple weird stuff happen when they happen"

Well the first 2 only happen in goeoligically suitable areas & building earthquake proof building is simple engineering; for terrorism you look out for arabic looking people (in Britain it used to be Irish, who are less easily regonisable till they speak). Power outages happen where the supply is seriously stretvhed &/or dependent on an intermittent power source like wind.

They may not be 100% preventable, few things are, but they can be massively reduced. Earthquakes of a magnitude which kill hundreds of thousands in Pakistan kill about 2 in California. Such are the advantages of economic progress.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 12 Jul 2012 #permalink

Timothy McVeigh wasn't "arabic looking". Please don't add to the bigotry propaganda. Thanks.

By margo liebers (not verified) on 14 Jul 2012 #permalink