December 2, 2012

Be prepared for power outages


---- — When Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., on Oct. 30, east coast electric utility companies from South Carolina to New York reported power outages effecting well over 8 million homes and businesses, including 2.1 million customers in New York. More than a week later, nearly two million customers were still waiting for their power to be restored.

I went to bed that night expecting the worst. Fortunately, it never came.

Nonetheless, North Country residents are no strangers to harsh, dangerous, unpredictable weather. Snowstorms, blizzards, hammering rain, hail, sleet, flooding, prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures, heat waves, drought — we’ve seen it all. Yet, many of us still remain unprepared.

The simple truth is that our electricity can fail at any time. And, for much of the year, short interruptions in electric service can be tolerated. But, as storms like Sandy (or the Ice Storm of 1998, which was the weather event of my lifetime) so frighteningly illustrate, power failures can leave homes without heat, lighting, water or a way to cook food for prolonged periods of time. And winter weather conditions, like ice, can make getting out (or in) difficult or even impossible.

What’s more, during an emergency community-service organizations such as police and fire departments may be unable to respond in a timely manner.

Preparing now for power outages can make it a lot easier to keep your family safe and warm during an extended winter power failure. You should have an emergency survival kit with provisions stored where you can readily get to it. It should contain emergency lighting; i.e. flashlights and/or lanterns with spare batteries and bulbs, candles and/or kerosene or oil lamps (which are generally brighter than candles and easier to read by), and matches or lighters.

If you have outdoor solar lighting, you may be able to bring those lights inside during the evening. Even if they don’t provide very much illumination, they can help you find your way around in the dark.

When you’re stranded indoors, keeping abreast of what’s going on outside can be both helpful and reassuring. Music can be a comfort. A battery-powered radio with spare batteries can keep you informed, allow you to put on some background tunes, relax and stay connected.

You should also have an emergency stockpile of canned, dried and ready-to-eat foodstuffs, water, extra blankets and additional warm clothing on hand. In fact, if you think that you may experience a power outage, it’s a good idea to fill the bathtub with water. If nothing else, you can use it to flush the toilet.

If you keep the refrigerator door closed, it should hold the cold in for several hours at least. Open the refrigerator or freezer only when it’s absolutely necessary. If you think that something may have gone bad, toss it. It’s better to throw food away than to risk getting sick. If you contract food poisoning, you may not be able to obtain medical assistance.

Use food from the refrigerator first, then the freezer. If you have a chest freezer, covering it with blankets will provide insulation to keep it cold. Use the most perishable foods first.

If you have an electric cook stove, you may have to cook outside on a grill or camp stove. This isn’t a very enjoyable task in inclement weather, but you should never use a charcoal or gas grill indoors. They produce harmful, odorless gases that can be deadly.

Many of us have emergency heat in the form of a woodstove or fireplace, which will keep at least one room comfortable and livable. You may also be able to cook, or at least heat food up, on top of your woodstove or in your fireplace. If you use a propane or kerosene heater for back-up emergency heat, you need to be absolutely sure that the room you use it in has adequate ventilation.

It’s a good idea to turn off or disconnect all electrical appliances, electrical equipment and most lighting. Leave just one or two lights on so you’ll know when power has been restored.

It’s also a good idea to keep a first-aid kit ready. And if you have someone in your family with special medical needs or in a delicate condition, it’s a good idea to notify both the police and your utility company.

You may want to consider purchasing an inexpensive inverter that you can run from your car. This will allow you to power appliances that require small amounts of electricity for short periods of time.

Last, but not least, make a list of emergency phone numbers and keep a cell phone or corded phone on hand.

Above all, stay calm and don’t panic.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy, Agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, N.Y., 12953. Phone 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email