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What if the lights go out?

Power outages are likely each spring and summer due to tornadoes, thunderstorms and system overloads. Be ready.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 16, 2013 1:09PM

Logo: Lightning (Warren Faidley/Corbis)Recent severe weather -- tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail -- in the Midwest and southeastern United States is a reminder that millions of people are just one ice storm or lightning strike away from darkness.


The Weather Channel warns of more potential dangers this week as "Winter Storm Yogi" moves across the country.  


Predicted are heavy snow for the Rockies and the Plains, reaching as far as the Mississippi Valley; high winds in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico; thunderstorms and possibly tornadoes in Oklahoma; and thunderstorms in the Ozarks, the Ohio Valley, the Appalachians, from the Gulf Coast to the Carolinas.

Quick question: Do you know where your flashlights are?

Even if you dodge this particular weather bullet, there's always more to come. Tornado season. Hurricane season. Summer thunderstorms. Rolling blackouts, or surprise blackouts from overload during particularly hot weather.

Being ready for outages can mean the difference between discomfort and death. That's not an exaggeration: If it were 100 degrees and the power went out, could you keep an elderly family member cool enough to prevent heatstroke?

For that matter, could you even get into your home? Bernie Carr of The Apartment Prepper blog writes of a rolling blackout in Houston that left her temporarily stranded outside the non-functioning back gate of her secure apartment complex. Technically, Carr could have come in through the front door of the building -- but she was so accustomed to driving in the back gate that she never carried a front-door key.

Whoops. "The most minor detail…could mess you up," says Carr, author of "The Apartment Prepper's Handbook." On the bright side, she had bottled water in her car to keep herself hydrated while waiting for two hours in 105-degree heat.

Coping with the dark

Why do some people fail to buy even so much as a flashlight in advance? Why do we inevitably see news reports of people lining up at emergency shelters to get bottled water? It's probably our all-too-human tendency to think that if things are going OK right now, they always will.

"When it's sunny out, it's hard to be thinking 'What do I do when there's a storm?'," says Ken Collier of Family Handyman magazine.

The "Blackout Survival Guide" on the FH website offers some very simple, practical information. Several of my favorites: 
  • Turn your car into a generator. A power inverter turns DC current from your car into AC current for electric gadgetry. Inverters range in price from $25 to $100 or more, depending on what appliance you want to power up when the lights are down.
  • Use LED products. A flashlight or lantern with an LED bulb means batteries will last up to 10 times as long. One FH editor stuck small, self-adhesive LED lights up in bathrooms, bedrooms and hallways during a six-day outage.
  • Fill the tub. The site adds a vital tip to this old survival tactic: Duct-tape the drain first. "Most drains are not all that tight, and in a day or two, all that precious water will be gone."
  • Don't put off refilling the grill tank. A gas grill is invaluable for heating up canned food or boiling water for dehydrated items like instant oatmeal and coffee. Or for making you a neighborhood hero: One FH editor fed "dozens of friends and neighbors" by cooking up the contents of his fridge and freezer during a three-day blackout.
The "Blackouts" section of the website features numerous suggestions for preparing for, getting through and dealing with the aftermath of a power outage. A few to get you started:
  • Stay frosty. Store plastic containers of water in the freezer, to keep it colder longer if the power goes out. If the outage lasts a long time, they'll thaw into drinking water.
  • Garage access. Find the manual release lever of your electric garage door opener. Use it. See if the door is too heavy to open without help.
  • Beware of surges. Turn off or disconnect appliances or electronics in use when the lights went out. A momentary surge when the power comes back can damage computers, air conditioners and other gadgets.
  • Stay home. Traffic signals are out, remember? Don't add to the congestion, or get in the way of those working to restore power or dealing with accidents or medical emergencies.
  • Build a cash cache. If the power's out, so is the ATM. Stores that remain open may not be able to process credit or debit transactions.

It's a good idea to have a portable radio, whether battery-operated or hand-cranked. If you've got a smartphone, you can download free Red Cross apps. These offer basic first-aid tips, the location of the nearest Red Cross shelter, and tips for surviving hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes.

Keeping your cool

If it's high summer and the power's going to be off a while, weigh the advisability of finding the closest  "cooling shelter." (Here's where that Red Cross app comes in handy.) Keep in mind that a lack of traffic signals might mean huge jams.

Should you decide to remain at home, stay on the lower levels where it's (relatively) cooler. Drape a wet kerchief around the back of your neck; as the water evaporates it helps cool you down. (I know this tip works, because I used it in Death Valley one summer.)

Sandra Bockhorst of the American Preppers Network takes self-swamp-coolerhood a lot further. Soak a T-shirt or some other cotton garment and wear it, she says. Wet your hair or at least your hairline. Run cool water over your wrists, or keep your feet in water (e.g., the kids' wading pool).

Or buy a battery-operated fan/mister -- ahead of time, obviously -- which sprinkles you with water and then evaporates it. (Don't forget extra batteries.) And though it may seem counterintuitive, Bockhorst suggests eating spicy food or drinking hot tea, either for the cooling sweat it produces or the theory that it might "reset your internal thermostat."

Drink lots of water, too, even if you don't feel like it; better to prevent heatstroke than try and treat it. The "Basic Disaster Supplies" section of recommends storing at least one gallon per person per day for a minimum of three days.


 If you haven't done that, do it now. We don't want to see you on the news -- and you don't want to have to go home to your family saying, "All they had was one gallon. Hope you’re not real thirsty."

More on MSN Money:

Apr 17, 2013 3:24AM
What, no mention of buying a power generator?
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