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How To Survive A Blackout

Written by on Sunday, 30 July 2006 7:00 pm
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Surviving a blackout is a lot like surviving a disaster.

Preparation helps mitigate the worst.

If you don't prepare to be without electricity for a few days, you could have a disaster on your hands -- especially when it's hot weather that turns off the lights.

Just ask residents in St. Louis, MO, and New York City's Queens neighborhood.

Blackouts can occur at anytime due to system failures, overheated transformers, overloaded grids, and other natural events.

But this summer's globe-wrapping heat wave is to blame for blackouts in San Jose, CA; Alberta, Canada; London, England; Prague, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. Extra power demand, largely due to cooling appliances running longer and more often, has again and again outstripped the capacity of aging power generating infrastructures and that's triggered many of the blackouts.

Also, some jurisdictions' utility operators are flipping off the power and rolling blackouts through commercial districts and residential communities for short periods to prevent larger, longer potentially deadly outages.

Because hot weather is the primary factor in current blackouts, a key component in blackout survival is preparing to deal with the heat, that is already responsible for more than 80 deaths this summer in California alone.

More people in the U.S. die from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes -- combined -- according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Assuming it's a heat-generated blackout, here's how to prepare for and then survive the outage, based on information compiled from the Red Cross; California's Pacific Gas and Electric; University of California-Davis Cooperative Extension; and the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management.

  • Plan A. Access information. Check you local utility's website for heatwave, power consumption and blackout information. When temperatures rise and rolling blackouts are scheduled, utilities typically post or broadcast a schedule for rolling blackouts based on "outage blocks" or some other geographic area, neighborhood or community designation. The procedure allows utilities to give you advance warning and time to put your survival plan into action.

    It's up to you to learn your outage block and keep abreast of pertinent news and information as the heat wave progresses. Where you find such information will likely include blackout survival tips.

    If someone in your household is on life-support systems, you should notify your power company when the support system is installed. Most utilities will notify life support customers first if service will be interrupted for whatever reason. But because all outages are not planned, life support backup is crucial.

    If a liquid or natural gas fired generator is your back up for life support or other electrical needs, follow the manufacturers instructions to the letter. Never operate generators indoors including in a basement, garage or other enclosed space. Never connect the generator to the home's electrical system without a code-complying transfer switch. It's best to connect appliances, lighting and other equipment directly to the generator. Get advice in advance from a licensed electrician.

  • Plan B. Bail out. When it's 110 in the shade and you know the blackout is coming, your plans should include an escape to keep you cool.

    Rolling blackouts also allow the power to remain on sometimes just across the street or a few blocks away. Some communities offer cooling centers, including community centers, armories, hospital waiting rooms and a host of other public -- and sometimes private -- facilities that share their cooler air when the weather outside is dreadful.

    Your local office of emergency planning, energy department, Red Cross branch and utility company will point you in the right direction. Again, it's important to obtain this information in advance.

    The best cooling center is within easy walking distance. Non-working traffic signals and overheated drivers could make driving more hazardous than normal, even with reminders that all traffic light controlled intersections become virtual stop-sign regulated intersections during a blackout.

    Other cool shelter may be found nearby at a friend, relative or neighbor's house, in a shopping mall, movie theater or a hotel or motel where it might be a good time to take a brief vacation.

  • Plan C. Cool food and water. Keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to prevent food spoilage. Food in a fully loaded, closed freezer can stay frozen for up to two days. If it's half full, food will last about one day.

    During a heatwave, keep a large bag or two of ice in your freezer (it can help fill empty space) and make sure your ice cube tray or receptacle is full. Use nonperishables first, say the food from the survival kit you are supposed to keep for any kind of disaster.

    The Red Cross says, for each individual survival kit, you should have enough food and water to last for three days, but if it's a rolling blackout, you'll only need a fraction of that amount. Don't forget food and water for your pets.

    Discard any perishable refrigerated foods that have been above 40 degrees F for more than two hours. That means, you should have a digital quick-response thermometer in your survival kit. It will come in handy to check food temperatures when you return home after a outage has already begun. Discard any food with an unusual odor, color or texture. When in doubt, throw it out.

    Keep hydrated. Continue what should be your usual regimen of eight, four-ounce glasses of water a day, more if necessary. Don't over hydrate.

    For outages that drag on for more than two or four hours, pack refrigerated milk, dairy products, meats, fish, poultry eggs, leftovers and others refrigerated items in a cooler surrounded by ice. This is another reason to keep extra ice on hand. Some retailers ran out of ice during the recent heatwave.

  • Plan D. Distribute supplies to every family member. In addition to food and water survival kits for everyone, each member of the household should have a flashlight, extra batteries, medical prescriptions, hygiene supplies and other personal items. Pack in some luxuries and fun items -- candy, toys, handheld video games, travel-sized games, etc.

    You should also have a first aid kit, corded telephone that doesn't require electricity, a cell phone (remember, batteries do run down and networks get overloaded during emergencies), satellite phone or other means of communication. A portable battery-operated AM-FM radio (know which station to tune in) or small television will keep you informed about the blackout. You vehicle's gas tank should always be half full and you should know how to crank your garage door if it's normally powered by electricity.

  • Plan E. Electronics, electricity-powered appliances and the elderly need attention too. Always back up computer data regularly. Turn off or disconnect any appliances or electronic devices you were using when the power went out. Turn them off in advance if you receive notice of an impending rolling blackout. Leave one light turned on so you'll know when your power is restored. In hot weather, keep a close eye on older people, infants and kids who can't always verbalize how they feel, but who are most susceptible to heat.

    Finally, if global warming predictions are accurate, heatwaves will continue and with them will come blackouts. That's another reason to consider tacking solar panels onto your roof. When the power goes out, you'll have not only a carbon-free source of energy, you'll be the envy of your neighborhood -- and perhaps a cooling center for your neighbors.

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      About the author, Broderick Perkins

    Individual news stories are based upon the opinions of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of Realty Times.