When I was 12 years old, I was in a grocery store with my Mom when the lights flickered and then quickly went out. All of us shoppers commented to each other on the novelty of a store-wide power outage and continued in the darkness, picking out the items still on our list and paying cash at the register. (Which people still regularly carried around back then, if you can believe it!)
When we left the store, we both realized that it wasn’t just an outage at the shopping plaza but that lights were out all down the street. And all the way home on our 15-minute drive.
We soon discovered that we were experiencing the first few moments of what turned out to be a 33-day long power outage for millions of people across Northeast USA and Canada, the great ice storm of 1998.
At just 12 years old, I didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the event and (likely thanks to my parents' calm demeanor!) I don't have any traumatic memories of the experience but as an adult with children of my own now, I find myself feeling ill-prepared for what to do in such an event and wanting to know how to stay safe. (I should also note that we were lucky then – the power was only out in our home for five days. Phew!)
Lights out at your place for more than a day? Here are the things that experts agree you should do if you are to experience a long power outage:
Stay calm and stay safe: During a power outage, it's important to prioritize your safety (and sanity!) and that of your loved ones. If you can, remain calm and remember these key steps:
Ensure everyone's well-being: If it’s safe to leave the house, check on family members, especially the elderly, young children, and those with medical conditions. Stay together and provide comfort and reassurance. (Thank you Mom and Dad for this, above all!) Not safe to leave home? Check in on the phone or via text!
Have friends or family nearby with power? Go for a visit! If your house is without heat and you’re worried about your pipes freezing while you’re gone, you can shut off your water and open your faucets. (If you’ve never done this before, be careful because water valves that aren’t used regularly can break, which would result in a bigger issue.) It’s also a good idea to unplug sensitive electronics that could be damaged when the power is restored. And plan to check in on your house regularly if you can, if you won’t be staying there.
Stay connected: Keep your mobile devices fully charged and limit their usage to conserve battery life. (If you can survive without a daily Instagram or TikTok scroll, this is the time to do so.) In case of an extended outage, consider investing in a portable power bank or a generator.
Remember: A generator needs to be run outdoors because of the exhaust. Running one in an enclosed area can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
If you’re going with a gas generator, consider an inverter generator! They're quieter and typically more compact than a standard portable generator, and they're designed to deliver better electricity so there's less concern about plugging sensitive electronics (which includes most modern refrigerators) into them.
On the fence between a generator or a larger battery backup (portable or hardwired)? The battery backup can be kept and used inside, and recharged with solar power.
Get to know your water supply: If you live in a city, your water pressure should still work, so you'll be able to use toilets/sinks, etc. If you have an electric water heater or a heat pump water heater, you may run out of hot water. If you're on a well, your well pump is likely electric, so unless it has a battery backup, you might also be out of water. If possible, know your system *before* the power goes out and stock up on water supplies appropriately.
Be resourceful: When the power goes out, it's time to tap into your resourcefulness. Here are a few practical tips to help you navigate the challenges:
Preserve food: Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the temperature. Consume perishable items first and resort to non-perishable foods afterward. If you have a gas stove, you may still be able to cook simple meals. Note that some gas stoves have an electric ignitor so you may need to light it with a match or lighter. Only do this if you’re comfortable with the process and refer to your range or cooktop’s manual. (And if weather permits, the BBQ is your friend too!)
Stay informed: Tune in to your battery-powered radio for updates on the power outage, weather conditions, and emergency instructions. Local news stations often provide important information during these kinds of situations and it can be nice to just hear a familiar voice. Most radio stations share news at the top and bottom of each hour so no need to be listening all day!
Stay warm or cool: Depending on the weather, dress appropriately in layered clothing or use blankets to stay warm.
In hot weather, seek shade and use handheld fans or portable battery-operated fans to keep cool.
Basements (if you have one) are often cooler than the rest of the house.
Have a portable battery back-up unit? Some have enough power to run a plug-in fan for several days!
Remember, you're not alone in this! Here are some valuable resources to keep you informed and provide further assistance:
American Red Cross: Visit the American Red Cross website for comprehensive guidance on dealing with power outages, emergency preparedness, and safety tips.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): FEMA's Ready.gov website offers an extensive collection of resources to help you prepare for power outages and cope with their impact.
Your local utility company: Reach out to your local utility company for updates on the outage and estimated restoration times. They can provide you with valuable information and support.
Got all the essentials you need? Try to find ways to enjoy the unique experience if you can! Photo credit: Canva Pro library
Safe and secure? Embrace the darkness! Thankfully, my experience wasn’t traumatic and I actually remember enjoying some moments of the strange situation! Instead of fretting over the lack of electricity, why not find alternative activities to dive into if you can? Here are a few suggestions:
Meet your neighbors! During the COVID-19 pandemic, (not a power outage, but a similarly scary, “we’re all in this together” type of moment), our neighborhood got closer than ever and folks I never knew the names of are now considered friends.
Quality time with loved ones: Power outages offer a unique opportunity to connect with your family and friends. Play board games, have meaningful conversations, or simply enjoy each other's company. Unplugging from technology can lead to surprisingly memorable moments. (My family’s favorite game is Code Names. If you haven’t played yet, now is the time! You can thank me later.)
Explore the joy of reading: Dust off those books you've been meaning to read or gather around with your family for storytime. Reading not only transports you to different worlds but also stimulates your imagination and keeps your mind engaged. (Especially helpful during times of stress!)
Rediscover old hobbies: Use this downtime to pick up hobbies that don't rely on electricity. Whether it's drawing, knitting, writing, or playing an acoustic instrument, embrace the analog world and let your creativity flow.
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