The world as we know it is designed to run on a continuous supply of electricity. Everything from your household appliances and garage doors to the infrastructure of cities themselves – traffic lights, emergency services, and transportation networks – depend on a functioning electrical grid. The consequences of an extended power outage can be both devastating and difficult to fully anticipate, but this article will highlight some of the steps you can take to prepare for the disaster of a severe power outage.
What causes major power outages?
An extended power outage is far from a hypothetical possibility. Extended outages are often the result of natural disasters – take, for example, the months-long outage in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017. Earthquakes and tsunamis can equally devastate regional power grids such as happened in Japan in 2011, while ice storms can take out miles of power lines at a time. Less common, but just as dangerous, solar activity can disrupt the power grid such as happened in the Northeast US in 2003. Although there have been fewer examples of human-caused outages on these scales, the threat of computer hacking and aging power grid infrastructure mean that terrorist activity causing extreme outages is a real concern around the world.
What can happen when the power goes out?
The power going out on a regional scale, for weeks or even months at a time, can have far-reaching consequences. The immediate effect in your home is the loss of all appliances, including your TV and internet connections – which, without a radio, can cut you off from news of the outside world. Be sure to have a solid crank radio handy that can also get the emergency bands - check out this post. In addition, normally simple things can become suddenly difficult. For example, how do you get your car out to get food or gas for a generator when there is no electricity to open the garage door?
On a wider scale, the loss of power means the loss of traffic signals, streetlights, and alarm systems. All of which can combine to produce some level of chaos and the opportunity for crime and looting, especially in crowded cities. Although emergency services are likely to have generator backups for essential communications systems and life-saving hospital services, it is highly likely that the emergency systems in place in many cities will be overwhelmed and unable to respond to anything but the highest-priority calls during a blackout. This means that in the case of something like a car accident – a likely event once traffic lights are down – there may be no one to call for help.
Another important thing to consider is that even if there are stores remaining open in the dark, cash may quickly become scarce as ATMs cease to work without power. Of course, credit cards are useless without power and internet connections. As a result, it is possible that prices can skyrocket during an extended outage and barter systems may emerge. Be sure to have some emergency cash handy - check out this post.
The disaster surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011 also highlights another danger that may emerge as a result of power outages. Nuclear power plants rely on electricity to maintain their cooling systems and failure in these systems can cause catastrophic radiation releases. Although these plants normally have abundant backup power systems, blackouts caused by a disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami – which in Japan took out the generators along with the power grid – can be extraordinarily dangerous. The same applies to other industrial plants, which can see their fire suppression or ventilation systems dangerously compromised in the event of a blackout.
How do you prepare?
Given the expansive set of threats that come with an extended power outage, how do you begin to anticipate all of the things that could go wrong around your home and prepare for staying safe? There are a number of things to do when the power goes out – we’ll highlight some of the most important points here.
Although it may seem like a minor concern in the event of a regional power outage, your refrigerator and freezer losing power is a big deal. When the power first goes out, chances are you won’t know for how long you’ll be in the dark or how wide the area affected is – but if you don’t act to protect your perishable food immediately, you can find yourself facing a food shortage if the outage lasts longer than you expect.
If you suspect the power outage may last longer than 24 hours - do not leave your food in the refrigerator and freezer. Instead, move it into insulated coolers and pack it as tightly as possible to improve the insulation, and include any ice you may have had building up in your freezer before the outage. Consider packing different coolers - those with food items you will use frequently (milk, cheese, fruits and vegetables), and those that you want to save longer term (frozen meats).
Driving to the nearest convenience store for bagged ice is an option, although you’ll need to consider safety on the roads without traffic controls before heading out. If it is wintertime, you can also place the coolers outside and pack them with snow if there is any on the ground.
One of the best tools you can have for when the power goes out is a generator. A prepper generator is simply irreplaceable in the event of an outage since it can power your essentials like a refrigerator or a heater. Of course, you’ll need to purchase a generator ahead of time and know how to use it. Just as important, you’ll need to have gas on hand – although some states have recently passed laws requiring new gas stations to have backup power for gas pumps, many gas stations won’t be able to pump gas after the power goes out. Be sure to only use outdoors and at least 20 feet away from your house to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
If a power outage strikes in the winter, staying warm is a serious concern. If you have a generator, it makes sense to also have a space heater for use during power outages. However, you can also stay warm the old-fashioned way: by keeping a stockpile of warm clothes and blankets around the house. Note, never ever use your stove to heat your house in an emergency. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real danger if you even attempt.
Your water supply and sewage system may or may not require electricity to run, depending on the pressure in your pipes. However, in an extended outage, it is more than likely that water use without new pumping will eventually draw down the pressure and water flow into your tap will cease. As a result, it is critical to keep an emergency supply of water around your house. Better yet, keep a water filter or water treatment tablets, or know how to treat water using household chemicals. In that case, you can collect rain runoff or snowmelt and treat it to have a reasonably sustainable source of drinking water.
If you have an electric stove, you can add that to the list of essential household appliances that won’t work during a power outage. Although most gas stoves will still work during an outage – although you’ll need to light them with a match – some gas stoves actually shut off gas flow when the power cuts out, so you’ll need to check how your stove functions. Having a working stove is essential for cooking your food supply as well as for boiling water if you have no other way to treat it. If your stove won’t work during an outage, invest in a camping stove that burns propane or another fuel that you can easily stockpile and that has a long shelf life.
Extended power outages are a frightening possibility since nearly every piece of infrastructure and most of the things you take for granted in your home require electricity to function. When the power goes out for more than a week, everything from the cash economy to food security to emergency services may be in jeopardy. However, there are a number of steps you can take to secure yourself against an extended power outage and maintain the essentials of food, water, and shelter – an ounce of preparation can be the difference between sheltering through an outage in relative comfort or struggling to survive through the blackout. Be sure to have your family prepared for such an emergency, and be sure to check on loved ones and neighbors to ensure everyone is safe.
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