You know the feeling, and it's a bad one. Suddenly everything in the house goes silent and dark. Power's out. You run outside to see if it's just you, and check your breaker box. Meanwhile you're wondering: How long is it going to be out? A few minutes is one thing. A few hours, even. But if you're without electric for days on end — or longer — the throwback appeal of reading by candlelight quickly loses its charm.
I live in a city prone to weather anomalies — we joke that after hail storms, wind storms, ice storms, and floods in Louisville, Kentucky, all we're missing is a plague of locusts. My previous neighborhood was cursed with power lines that would go down in the merest breeze, and outages were measured in days, not hours.
We tend to take the power grid for granted, until it fails us. And 'tis the season. “While we love to get outside and enjoy warm weather it's fairly common to experience pop-up thunderstorms and inclement weather,” in the summer, said Liz Pratt, a spokesperson for LG&E and KU, the utility provider in my city. “Utilities, speaking broadly, are continually investing in our electric systems and equipment to make them more resilient. However, during storms, strong winds and storm debris are major culprits that can cause power outages.”
So sooner or later, chances are you may be facing an eerily quiet, dark house. What now? (Besides frantically checking to see how much juice is on your cell phone battery!)
Pratt shares some tips, beginning with stay safe. “You can never remind someone enough times to make sure that their safety is the most important priority,” she says. So stay away from downed power lines and keep the camp stoves and charcoal grills outdoors.
First things first: report the outage
The first action you should take, Pratt says, is notify your utility. Don't assume your neighbors have done it — besides, the more people that report an outage, the better they can pinpoint the problem. And after critical care community services (like hospitals and airports) have power restored, she explained, utilities look to areas that can bring “lots of customers back at one time.” So you can't over-report.
However, don't wait till the lights go off. “It's best to do research ahead of time to know what tools and resources your utility offers,” Pratt says. Here in Louisville with LG&E I can text to report an outage and receive an estimate for when it should be restored as well as updates on progress. During a recent outage their estimate was spot-on. That intel was super helpful, because I knew I could wait it out and not have to decamp to a coffee shop to work.
Be prepared with a disaster kit
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But what if it's going to be an extended outage? To find out I checked in with the first kind of person who comes to mind when you think about preparing for a calamity. Yep, I called a prepper. Tom Martin is the founder of American Preppers Network, and he offered some advice for preparing for and responding to power outages.
First up? No matter the emergency, be ready with a disaster supplies kit like that detailed on ready.gov, Martin says. That should include water (one gallon per person per day for at least three days — and don't forget about your pets), at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food, and things like manual can openers, flashlights and extra batteries (including for your cell phone).
Before deciding to stick it out, listen to authorities, Martin urges. If the outage is the result of a natural disaster or other calamity, it may be that you need to evacuate.
Have a plan for where you'll go in an emergency, Martin adds. I've had to pack up and stay with friends or family because we didn't have heat in the winter, or AC in the dead of Kentucky summer during extended power outages. So that you're not scrambling, it's good to know ahead of time where your “bug out” place will be, he says.
Know when to toss the food in the fridge
But if you stay, take note of the time. When the outage strikes, the clock is ticking on the food in your refrigerator and freezer. The USDA says food in a fridge will stay safely cold for four hours if the door isn't opened and a full freezer will maintain temperature for about 48 hours (if it's half full, that's 24 hours) as long as you keep the door closed. And don't rely on just looking — and certainly not on tasting — to see if the food's safe, they say. Instead, keep appliance thermometers in the fridge and freezer. You want to see 40 F or below in the fridge and 0°F or lower in the freezer. When in doubt, take individual foods' temperature with a food thermometer.
You might be able to stretch the time food will stay cold by wrapping [the refrigerator or freezer] in sleeping bags.
You might be able to stretch the time food will stay cold, Martin says, “by wrapping [the refrigerator or freezer] in sleeping bags. Wrap it up as best you can and don't open it unless it's absolutely necessary, and when you do, take out as much as you can use that day.” And when time's running out, why not make it a cooking extravaganza? Fire up the grill (outside, remember!) or go ahead and eat that ice cream you were saving.
Load up on light sources
Of course you'll also need light when the power's out. Martin recommends keeping a stock of cheap candles on hand so you don't burn through your pricier good-smelling candles. More practical, though, are LED flashlights (be sure you have extra batteries and know where they are) and another product called a Mule Light. Like a hybrid of a glow stick and flashlight, he explained, “it's designed to save on battery power.” Why not have them all? Martin suggests having two to four sources of light.
How to stay cool when the AC is out
Staying cool is a real concern in many parts of the country. I like to say we left for our long-haired dogs' comfort during one lengthy summer power outage, but I was as miserable as they were. We now keep a stash of battery operated fans on hand, clearly labeled in a box in the basement so I can find them easily with a flashlight. It's nothing like having AC, but prop one in a window and it makes a big difference. Speaking of dogs, you can follow their lead. Heat rises, so stay in a low position, Martin saiys. “Think about how a dog will dig down into the earth to get cool.” I might not go that far for a temporary power outage, but in that same vein, anyone with a basement could head there. “They stay pretty cool year round,” Martin adds.
Don’t go stir crazy: Occupy your mind
Once you've accounted for safety and health, there's also mental well-being. “You want things to help keep your mind occupied,” Martin says. “When you don't know what to do you get bored and anxious.” Think cards, board games, books, “things to make you comfortable and happy.” It was kind of amazing how much reading I got done in our last bout with no TV.
And none of us want to be without our cell phones any longer than we have to (plus they may be our only connection to the outside world so there's that) so keep an eye on the weather. If a storm is brewing, be sure you're staying charged up. Better still, have a non-electric back-up charger. Besides solar options, Martin says, there are even wind and water powered chargers now.
More tips for a better summer
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