Power Down - Are You Ready?

  • Posted on: 15 January 2016
  • By: Cathy McGuire

An ice storm sent the power crashing off throughout the Willamette Valley this month. At first, just a two-hour morning blackout, but that same afternoon the power went down and stayed down for 20 hours. This happened about an hour before sunset.

As I put my backup plans in place, I couldn’t help but remember that the Oregon Seismic Safety Advisory Commission had recently issued a document stating that in the event of a severe earthquake (which is overdue here), it could be 3 to 4 months before power would be restored to the Valley. All through the night and the next day, I held that fact in mind, as I both prided myself on being mostly prepared and found out what pieces were still not in place. For those who either haven’t started preparing, or who haven’t been tested recently, I want to describe the situation and the lessons I learned.

First off, although I did put several inches of water in the bathtub as soon as they predicted heavy snow and freezing rain, and I filled a number of gallon jugs, I did not fill all the ones that I had empty, nor did I fill the tub as high as it could go – which meant that in order to have enough water for washing and toilet flushing, I had to go out and pack some 5 and 10 gallon plastic buckets with the snow that was fortunately still on the ground. And because I have continuously put off getting that portable generator for the chest freezer, I had to pack that freezer plus the refrigerator/top freezer with bags of snow, as tightly as I could, to ensure that most of the food would survive, because there was no way to tell how long this would last.

I also put my emergency water purifying supplies where I could find them – both iodine and bleach. I do have some Brita filters, but they do not necessarily remove bacteria. Of course, I have my wood stove, and plenty of wood – but I discovered that juggling the cooking and the cleaning water on that small stove was more difficult than I imagined. And I had just put my weekly bread into the bread machine about half an hour before the power went out. I was really pleased to find that I could just pour the batter into a greased Dutch oven and first put it near the stove to rise, and then bake it on the top of the stove. (But that was more pot-juggling, of course.) I singed the bottom a bit, because I really am not experienced in wood stove cooking, but it tasted fine and I was pleased that I didn’t have to toss out the batter.

Some of my predicament was complicated by the fact that I have a very old cell phone, so I could not get Internet, and sometime during night the corded phones also went out – I assume that the same iced branches took out power and phone lines. I was very frustrated by the power companies automated response – not only was there absolutely no opportunity to ask questions of a human being, there wasn’t even any real information – I was continually getting the message “we know about the power outage and we’re working on it as hard as we can” – which seems to be a fairly useless statement because what are they gonna say – that they’re not working on it? And even though they gave me the opportunity to enter my phone number and get a “specific update,” all they said was “we know about the power outage and we’re working on it as part as we can”! This is just bogus,IMO. But what it taught me was that I do need to be prepared for not receiving any information, and need to be able to simply manage until the lights go on again. I need to be able to shift into various stages of no power: the quick kind of “don’t worry about the freezers”; the more extended “make maximum use of your water and be sure you can find more, plus dealing with freezer issues” and – it may happen some day – that very extended several month outage that they predict in case of earthquake.

One thing that is possible in regional power outages is to be able to call someone outside the area and have them check the Internet. I found it interesting but annoying that the power company had a different story on their website than they had on their phone message. The web told customers that “despite all the resources we are pouring into this, it may be more than 24 hours before power is restored.” But that at least gave me the information that this would not be a short outage. As I settled in for a longer stint, I began to think about how I could reuse all the water rather than just wasting it. For example, after I’d heated water on the stove, poured it into a plastic tub so that I could wash dishes, I used that water to flush the toilets. I have a septic tank so I have to be careful what I poured down, but soapy water is not a problem.

As to lighting – I had gotten myself a solar lantern, but I felt kind of foolish to find it was only 7 inches tall (no, I rarely read specifications… I know…) and was annoyed to find out the LED lights were incredibly harsh and not focused in any way, so they basically blinded me with out giving me much illumination. The light from my oil lamp was so much nicer and gave sufficient illumination for me to read for a couple hours. (Although I have to guess that my eyes would be pretty bad if I did it all the time.) The solar lantern has an adapter to allow for solar charging of cell phones, and I believe I will buy that – because it was also a big problem that I have no alternate charger for my cell phone. I hadn’t worried because most of the time the corded phones do not go out in these power outages. Now I know that I need to prepare for both possibilities. Later in the day, I noticed the cell phone was on roaming – which suggested to me that even the Sprint cell phone towers were down. This suggested to me that in a big emergency, I can’t expect any of my phones to work. I need to think about how I might get information locally – and I definitely plan to get to know the ham operators in my area.

As the power outage stretched on, and I began to worry about the freezer food, I decided to grab out some of the meat stock and frozen vegetables and just make a vegetable soup on the stove – I kept it simmering until the power came back on and then canned it so it will not need freezing. I probably need to practice canning on the woodstove, or make a rocket stove with their supposedly very high heat – just see if it’s possible.

I am now leaning toward canning half of the meat that I preserve, rather than freezing all of it. The USDA Extension preservation book states that if the freezer is unopened, it can last 15 to 20 hours without power; it also suggests getting dry ice to allow it to be cold longer. I’m guessing that in an emergency the ability to get dry ice might be nil, which is why I used the snow. It also suggests actually burying the food in snow if that is around – filling a garbage can full of the food and snow and then burying the garbage can in snow. I’m guessing they’re thinking of Minnesota or Kansas, not Oregon. At least, not usually Oregon.

One interesting discovery was that the lack of Internet and/or computer programs definitely was more difficult to adapt to, even though – as someone who doesn’t have a television – I may be less addicted. But I found that it wasn’t just the lack of information – there’s a pacing to being able to instantly find out something or instantly amuse oneself that when it’s gone takes a bit of getting used to. At night, as I said, it was hard to read, and during the day, I did find it hard to focus on reading because I was constantly checking on my animals, feeding the woodstove, getting soup and other things prepared, and getting myself ready for the next period of darkness, if the power didn’t go on before then.

I also found that a modern house set up is not the same as you need for a low-power setup. For example: hauling buckets of water and snow around is a lot messier and wetter than just turning on the tap. So I had to be aware of what I was going to do with these buckets of water, especially in the dark when I couldn’t actually see whether it was dripping. In the same way, one can’t just wash the dishes and get them out of the way – it takes at least three steps: boiling the water, mixing it with cooler water in a tub, washing the dishes, and then having another tub to rinse in. I was taking extra precautions not to spread germs around, because it wasn’t so easy to just quickly wash my hands, rinse them and go. And the table which was full of “this and that” had to be cleared so that I could safely put the candles and oil lamps and items that I needed on it. I believe that if this was a habitual situation, the layout of my small house would end up being quite a bit different, because I need different things.

And because the power was out, I slept on the couch by the stove, and it was a lot more important predawn to get up and keep the fire going then it usually is. I needed to have made sure that I had plenty of wood, unless I enjoy going out 3 AM to get wood from the wood pile.

And I think that what is difficult when you sense that there’ll be an outage, but you have no idea how big of a one, is you don’t want to go through the trouble of preparing in the extreme. This might be where having a habit of being mostly prepared would definitely pay off. Because there are droughts in the West, I have a hard time filling my bathtub up and then letting it drain out again when the water isn’t needed (that’s what messed me up this time) and I also sometimes get lazy in making sure there’s plenty of wood in the garage so I don’t have to go across the yard to get wood in the morning. And I’m not always aware of whether my freezer is as full as it could be (which is what it takes in order to keep it cold longest).

And of course, schlepping water to the animals more frequently because it was below freezing, and making sure they were safe from snow/ice falling suddenly, also took time and energy. (Heat water on stove, pour into water bottles, swap out for frozen waterer, repeat.) I stay stocked up on animal feed in the winter for the same reason I have my own food stores.

Are You Ready?
These are good questions to ask yourself, whether you are aiming to be prepared for a week, two weeks (recommended) or longer:
1 – Do I have backup food and lighting that will last for that period?
2 – Do I know where those supplies are?
3 – Do I have manual tools (can opener, matches, etc)?
4 – If I don’t have a woodstove, do I have sterno or something safe to cook on?
5 – How will I stay warm (or cool) for that timeframe if there is no power? (Consider whether to warm/cool the person or the house.)
6- Do I have water (2 gals/person/day) to last the whole time? Do I have water purifiers?
7 – How will I get more information about the crisis?
8 – Do I have animals, and am I prepared to care for them?
9 – Am I prepared to deal with the frustration, boredom or other emotions that a crisis or power outage can bring?

In the case of a really long outage, where I would have no idea when or if the power would go back on, I could see that I really would benefit from the lowest possible technology – it’s all well and good to have a power generator, but where would I get the propane or the kerosene? It’s fine having a smart phone that gets Internet, but there seems to be quite a few things that could go wrong there too. And the freezer obviously is a very handy thing, but it definitely requires power to keep it going. So – many of these thoughts are going through my head as I wonder how long I could cope with a serious emergency here. I’m actually glad that this smaller emergency gave me some practice and helped me to understand ways in which my preparations could be improved upon.