How can Americans lose electricity through no fault of their own? Let me count some of the ways: tornado, derecho, hurricane, nor'easter, tropical storm, thunderstorm, windstorm, rainstorm, snowstorm, ice storm, earthquake, volcano, lightning strike, falling branch and random bad drivers crashing into utility poles.
There's a similarly long list of reasons, including chemical spills, water main breaks and sundry natural disasters, why your tap water could either become dangerously contaminated or shut off altogether for awhile.
Point is, no matter who you are or where you live, you need to be prepared in case your power, water or other vital utilities disappear for awhile. Yet if you search online for information about emergency food storage, emergency power, disaster preparedness or similar topics, the results are usually cluttered by pages catering to so-called “preppers” or “survivalists,” people preparing in case modern civilization falls and all its life-sustaining amenities go on permanent leave.
Disclaimer: I personally am not particularly concerned about civilization permanently collapsing in my lifetime, and if it did, I doubt I'd outlast it much longer than a fortnight anyway. But like many Americans these days, I've occasionally suffered through days or even weeks of temporary storm-generated utility loss.
I spent a cold wintry week without heat or electricity after the Halloween blizzard of 2011 knocked out the power to more than half the state of Connecticut. This happened a mere two months after Hurricane Irene knocked out the power to more than half the state of Connecticut, which in turn happened only a couple weeks before some unnamed mid-September rainstorms knocked down power lines and washed out roads all throughout my own city in Connecticut.
Capable of taking a hint, the following summer I moved to northern Virginia and hadn't even lived there a full week before that monster “derecho” storm of 2012 walloped the region and — you guessed it! — knocked down power lines for miles in every direction from me.
The good thing about repeated power outages is that trial and error makes you progressively better at handling each one. It also drives home the lesson that the time to get your emergency-supply kit is now, before you think you'll need it, because by the time you know for certain a power-killing storm's headed your way, the stores have already sold out of everything useful.
So here's some things I've learned, without necessarily wanting to, ever since my power-outage-avoidance luck ran out a couple years back.
Emergency power generators
If you have the money for one, and a dedicated outdoor space where you can safely operate it, then buying a generator might be a good option for you. However, it generally isn't an option at all for most apartment- and condominium-dwellers. I've muddled through my various power outages without one.
Even with a generator you'll still want battery-operated flashlights and lanterns, because the cost of the batteries is orders of magnitude cheaper than the cost of fuel to run the generator to power your regular home electric lights. Luckily, we live in a Golden Age of absurdly inexpensive LED lighting, which require very little battery power to shine.
In addition to lanterns, I have several inexpensive LED keychain flashlights with glow-in-the-dark cases, which I keep in strategic locations around my house near various electric lights. The theory is that if a sudden power outage leaves me in the dark, I can find one of the glowing flashlights to light the way to the rest of my emergency supply cache.
For lanterns, flashlights, radios or other rarely used emergency appliances powered by alkaline batteries (AA, AAA, C or D-cell) as opposed to lithium “button” batteries, always store the batteries separately—or perhaps I should say, never store emergency appliances with their alkaline batteries in them, in case the batteries corrode.
Home climate control
If you're lucky, your extended power outage will coincide with a period of clement temperatures – not too hot and not too cold, so the lack of heat and air-conditioning won't be a problem.
Chances are, you won't get lucky.
For outages in too-hot weather, you always want some battery-operated fans on hand: ideally, a minimum of one fan for each person in your household, plus an extra fan or two for drawing air in or out of open windows.
If you live in a hot but dry climate, you have various options for using fans, water and damp cloth to create a makeshift “evaporative” or “swamp cooler” system sufficient to cool a small space — or you might even invest a few (very few) extra dollars in making a dedicated swamp cooler for such emergencies.
Unfortunately, swamp coolers don't work in humid climates.
Generating heat in a cold-weather power outage is much easier, even if you lack amenities like a fireplace or wood-burning stove. During my post-snowstorm week without power, when nighttime temperatures dropped to the teens or low 20s, I closed off the bedrooms in my apartment and managed to get the kitchen and common areas up to 66 degrees at night, by burning vegetable-wax candles in space heaters I'd made from coffee cans.
Granted, mine is an all-adult household; if I lived with small children, rambunctious pets or anyone else incapable of showing proper respect for fire safety, I'm not sure I'd have wanted to try this.
If ever you've been in an area where a hurricane's forecast to strike, the authorities will urge you to fill bottles and jugs with water now, in case storm runoff contaminates public water supplies. You might also be urged to seal your bathtub with a leak-proof plug and fill it with water, for flushing your toilets.
But calamities ranging from chemical spills to broken mains to earthquakes are perfectly capable of contaminating or cutting off the water with no prior warning. That's why you should always keep on hand enough bottled water to keep everybody in your household going for seven hot and sweaty days. (The official FEMA recommendation is to only have three day's worth of water on hand. They established this guideline before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, and did not revise it afterward despite massive anecdotal evidence suggesting that in a truly bad emergency, “three days of supplies” isn't remotely enough.)
You should have some individual-size servings of your favorite juice or soda over and above your drinking-water supply, because a power outage is boring enough without drinking flavorless lukewarm water, too. If you have young children, you should also consider getting boxes of no-refrigeration-needed milk for them. As with all food and drink purchases, keep an eye on the expiration dates and rotate/replace your stock as required.
Bear in mind: as a consumer-news source, this website usually urges food and drink shoppers to check the unit prices and buy whichever size offers the lowest one — for example, buying a gallon jug (128 ounces) of fruit juice for $3 is much cheaper than paying $2 for a six-pack of seven-ounce single-serving juice boxes or cans (42 ounces).
But that's assuming you have a working refrigerator to safely store that gallon of juice after you open it. When storing food and drink for a power outage sans refrigeration, any canned or bottled food or drink must be consumed soon after opening, before it goes bad. So, unless you have an unusually large household big enough to consume a “giant economy size” in a single sitting, your emergency food and drink supply should primarily consist of small single- or double-serving sizes, even though they do cost more than larger bulk purchases.
Of course the obvious choice for emergencies is food that can be stored without refrigeration and eaten without cooking: crackers and peanut butter, canned fruit, granola or energy bars, pudding cups and the like.
If you do want to cook, remember the first and most important rule of cooking in a power outage: never, under any circumstance, try cooking indoors with a barbecue grill, liquid or gas-powered camp stove, or similar items. They all generate toxic fumes or exhaust, and can only be used in outdoor situations where the fumes can dissipate.
During my week without power, I didn't do any true “cooking,” in the sense of transforming raw ingredients into a meal. However, I was able to warm up various canned heat-and-serve items over a small can of ethanol gel of the sort used under chafing dishes. The key word is “warm”; ethanol is good enough to heat canned spaghetti, not enough to boil water or anything like that.
Dishes and cookware
If you lose power but still have clean (though cold) running water, you can use your regular dishes, cookware and utensils and, in a pinch, hand-wash them using dish soap and cold water. But if you suffer a loss of power and clean water, you can't even do that, so make sure you have plenty of disposable utensils and paper plates on hand. I also keep a supply of inexpensive disposable aluminum chafing dishes just the right size to heat a can of soup or baked beans over ethanol gel.
Cash in small bills
If the power's out in your area, the ATMs will stop working — and a lot of businesses, even if they manage to stay open, won't be able to accept credit cards. During my week without power, there were a couple of stores and sandwich shops in walking distance of me that stayed open on generator power, but until the regular power came back they operated on a cash-only basis. Thanks to my cache of cash, during that miserable chilly week I was at least able to kick off each morning with a cup of hot coffee; it's just too bad I had to walk two blocks each way to get it.
Medicines and medical supplies
If you or anyone in your house requires regular doses of medication, always have at least a few days' worth on hand, if possible.
Whether you require medication or not, make sure you have a well-stocked first aid kit available. There are plenty of companies that will sell you a pre-stocked first aid kit, but in most cases, if you look at what those kits actually contain, it's much cheaper for you to buy the individual components and put the kit together yourself. That's usually the case for any pre-stocked emergency kit offered for sale: anything from a three-day emergency food supply to an all-purpose lost-in-the-wilderness survival bug-out backpack might well be a good kit to have, but you'll get a better kit for less money if you put it together yourself.
And do it now, when you don't need it, rather than wait until you do.