Friday, January 8, 2010

3: Power Loss in the Home

When I think of facing adversity while remaining in the home, my mind goes immediately to long periods without power. We take electricity for granted and hardly consider it until the lights go out and the television goes black and silent.
When I was young and somewhat careless, my car magically jumped a curb and snapped a power pole about three feet off the ground. Fortunately, way back then, telephones did not require electricity to operate. Unfortunately, the telephone lines were carried on the same pole. I have never known how an ambulance was called but I do know that back then, a power pole cost $350.

I say that to say this...we lose more than lights when the lights go out. Most of our land line telephones are powered by home bases that require electricity to work. Our cell phones are fine until we cannot recharge them. The heat or cold outside our homes seem somewhat tolerable as we dart from building to vehicle and back again, that is until that temperature invades our every moment. And what alien territory we feel we have entered when we open the refrigerator and are not greeted by that lovely and welcoming little light.
Loss of power is huge.

For a few hours, it's an inconvenience...causes us to miss the end of a movie or postpone dinner. But over a few days, our food will spoil, tempers can flare and our sense of well being can start to erode and evolve into a rising internal panic. After weeks without power, believe it or not, things begin to get better. We have made adjustments, our attitudes have mellowed and our expectations have become more realistic. We might even reach a point of acknowledging that people once lived quite successfully without electricity.

But in between inconvenience and victory, loss of power can actually be life threatening. Often we have time to prepare, as when a hurricane approaches over several days. Other times, extreme power outages take us by surprise, the result of a sudden ice storm, tornado or earthquake. The point is that we need to be prepared for power outages small and large, anticipated and sudden.

Life depends on having access to water, food, in some cases medications, and protection from the elements.

Water for hydration is a requirement not a luxury. Water for hygiene, though important, especially long term, is less necessary. The standard rule of one gallon per person per day covers both but is not, in my opinion, realistic. For one thing, water for hygiene and sanitation does not have to be potable. It can be stored beyond expiration dates, (yes, even water can expire) and it is needed in greater quantities. Adding a cap full of bleach to the dishpan before washing dishes or to a container of water for a sponge bath is always a good idea.
Drinking water that can be used in quantities much less than a gallon per person per day, can be purchased or prepared. For a consumer fact sheet on finding water and safe storage, click HERE. The containers used for drinking water need careful scrutiny. Some plastics, even some of those used to package foods like milk, are considered unsafe for long term water shortage. The "Recycle" Codes on the bottom of plastic containers are more than just numbers. They refer to the plastic compounds from which the containers are made and address the issue for future use. Numbers 1,2,4 and 5 are more likely acceptable but complete information for acceptable reuse of plastic containers is provided HERE.

One if the problems associated with storing water for emergency use is the little matter of where to put it. A garage, if you have one, is a great storage place unless it freezes and freezing is no problem unless the plastic container splits from expansion and that won't be noticed until spring when facing a minor flood. So, what to do?

A solution to providing drinking water in adequate quantities is to keep a few cases of purchased bottled water in the back of the pantry. Occasionally, new cases can be rotated in and the older ones put into daily use. For long term need, unopened 5 gallon bottles, purchased from a water cooler company, can reside in the dark recesses of a closet. These containers of water should be used sparingly, only for drinking, brushing teeth and cooking (when a 5 minute boil would be inappropriate). Another possibility for extending the potable water supply is the purchase of water purification tablets for making use of a nearby natural water source. In that instance, I would recommend using the tablets AND boiling the water for at least 5 minutes just to make certain no pollutants remain.

Water for dishes, sponge bathing and flushing the toilet can be kept in any number of containers. With advance warning of a potential outage, the bathtub is a most important water reservoir. However, most drain stoppers have a slow leak. The water retention of your tub can be tested by filling it at night and checking the level in the morning. If the level is down at all, the $1 cost of a rubber stopper is a good investment.

My favorite containers for general-use water are unrinsed, empty bleach bottles. They are heavy plastic, have handles and child resistant lids. They can be lined up against a wall behind the couch or kept in the back of lower kitchen cabinets where more often used items are inaccessible.

Flushing the toilet is one of the things we take so much for granted until we can't. When water is at a premium, flushing is best done by quickly pouring water directly into the bowl until it "gulps", not filling the tank. Little boys and discrete men can make use of a camouflaging shrub. A tarp or old shower curtain can be rigged in a private corner of a suburban yard. Use of the toilet in the house would, of necessity, need to be confined to unflushed liquid deposits (with tissue disposed of in a plastic bag lined trash can) and solids which would require flushing. Portable toilets, like those used for camping, come in a wide range of sophistication and price from a rudimentary seat that fits over a 5-gallon bucket to bio-ecological marvels. HERE is a link with reviews concerning the many types of portable toilets, worth investigating by those who live in apartments and condos. Also, never let your household run short of toilet tissue. Keep a couple of packages on a closet shelf and forget it's there. You don't want to learn how necessary this little item is by running out of it, especially in the middle of a crisis.

In Alaska and on many older properties, like farms, old-fashioned out houses are not uncommon. Few of us would actually desire to have one unless we had been weeks without adequate facilities. It's amazing how quickly something can climb up a priority list. If you have rural property without specific prohibition, building an outhouse is actually worth consideration. Find instructions HERE.

Of course, living adjacent to natural water or having a pool, provides an abundant supply for flushing the toilet but it is not recommended for ingesting or washing dishes without boiling first.

Washing dishes is another part of our daily routine that will require major adjustment. Dish washing can be reduced to silverware and an occasional pot or serving bowl with a good supply of paper plates and bowls. Paper is recommended over plastic because it is burnable and biodegradable. Reverting to our grandparents ways of using a dishpan for soapy water and pouring boiling water over the clean items standing in a dish rack is a good technique for camping and for mastering life without electricity.

But how do we boil water or prepare food without electricity? It's time to deal with cooking and ...

An adequate food supply is critical for survival. Many of us have poorly stocked pantries or think we can't afford to purchase food we hope we will never eat. Buying a couple of items for emergency stock each week will not put anyone in the poorhouse and it could be life sustaining.

A few of my emergency food items are as follows:
  • Meal-in-a-can, heat & eat items like beef stew, ravioli, chow mien w/ noodles, corned beef hash, chicken & dumplings, etc.
  • Canned items that can be mixed together for a salad, eg. corn, green, wax & kidney beans, whole tomatoes, whole potatoes, pimento, etc.
  • Heat & eat packaged soups
  • Protein via canned or foil-packed tuna, chicken, ham, dried beef, Spam
  • Canned fruit with drinkable juices like peaches, pineapple, mandarin oranges, etc.
  • Granola & Trail Mixes
  • Unsalted crackers & Melba Toast
  • Jars of cheese foods
  • Single serving juices including V-8
A day of survival with these foods might typically include a fruit & granola breakfast, 3-bean salad & crackers for lunch & beef stew for dinner. Knowing that herbs, spices, oil and vinegar are readily available in the home allows for a margin of creativity. Later, I will post recipes for emergency meals. Not recommended foods include heavily salted items and things that require cooking in quantities of water like rice and pasta.

Dealing with foods in the refrigerator and freezer can be a bit of a guessing game. If we knew that the power would be off for only 3 days, it would be better to leave the freezer door closed in order to maintain the temperature as long as possible. The refrigerator, on the other hand, should be emptied after 24 hours and the contents thrown away. Exceptions might be mustard and ketchup, high acid pickles and some jams and jellys that didn't require refrigeration in the first the labels.
If the power loss was anticipated, it is assumed that a cooler and ice supply was standing at the ready, in which case, the foods from the refrigerator can be salvaged for a few days more. Prepared frozen foods can be quickly removed from the freezer to the ice chest and eaten within the first day or two. On day five without power, after a recent hurricane, my entire community got together for a cook-out. Those who had them brought grills. Everyone with meat thawing in their freezers, brought it...all. Those who had nothing, came as well. Everyone grilled. Everyone ate. Everyone took home some leftovers to be packed on ice and eaten the following day.

Refrigeration has been with us for generations but not always. Ice becomes most important between day 3, when your own supply runs out and day 7, when there is no longer anything to be salvaged. Generally, the local Emergency Management will have connected with FEMA and ice will be available at specific distribution sites but that is not always the case. Checking with your local Emergency Management office, before there is an emergency, to learn their specific procedure is a good idea.

Food preparation will be limited unless you are fortunate enough to have gas facilities that remain available. Most gas stoves have electronic igniters which will not work but the burners can be lit manually with a match but caution should be taken. Have the match lit and in position before turning on the gas. Grills, charcoal and gas, and Coleman 2 burner camp stoves are a real blessing but must never be used indoors. However, a fondue pot heated with Sterno is safe in the house and is great for keeping the morning coffee warm. On the other hand, if the emergency is in the middle of winter, a wood stove serves double duty. Even a wood burning fireplace is usable with the right supplies. A cast iron Dutch Oven can be set directly in hot coals, turned regularly and will not only heat canned dinners but can be used to bake bread.

Speaking of wood stoves and fireplaces, if you have either, good for you. You will not freeze. But if you, like a daughter of mine, only use the fireplace to burn packaged, manufactured logs for atmosphere, it would be a good idea to put in a cord of wood. Remember to store it away from the house where it will not introduce an approaching fire to your home. We just bring a small supply of logs to the porch every few days. Without the availability of fire, the purchase of a non-electric space heater is important especially if your winter temperatures can be life threatening. However, they can be very dangerous if used improperly. Please read and follow all instructions.
Conserving heat under adverse conditions is important. Layering clothing is a big help. So is reducing the number of rooms to be heated. Close doors to rooms that can be left unused. Close draperies or hang blankets over windows and doorways to maintain heat. Move beds into the room with the heat and let children sleep together or snuggle with parents. Wearing socks and stocking caps to bed may not be fashionable but is certainly practical.

Believe it or not, it's easier to keep warm in areas prone to ice storms and blizzards than it is to keep cool in areas often struck by hurricanes. The late summer heat can be lethal especially for the very young and very old and especially under conditions that include maximum stress and limited hydration. Opening windows at night to let the cooler air in and closing and covering them in the morning to keep the day's heat at bay certainly helps. Wearing natural fiber clothing such as cotton which will wick away perspiration is also a good idea. Keeping a wet washcloth on hand to lay across the back of the neck helps as does cooling pulse points, wrists, inner elbows and the back of knees with cool water or an ice cube wrapped in a cloth. Little battery operated personal fans are available for less than $2 and air movement across the face really helps.

No one wants to complicate an already difficult situation with a house fire yet lanterns and candles and kerosene lamps are a part of dealing with the loss of electricity. Have them on hand. HERE is a link the the Coleman line of lighting and lanterns many of them are battery operated and safer around children. When using open flame, keep them away from curtains and children. Do not allow a child to be unattended in a room with an open flame...not even the bathroom. Supervise. Supervise. Supervise.

Keeping in touch is important for peace of mind and for receiving pertinent information. NOAA emergency radio broadcasts early warnings to widespread areas. During the early days of an emergency, local radio stations with emergency power backup do a good job of broadcasting needed information more pinpointed to your specific area. But broadcasts are only as good as your ability to receive them. A battery operated radio with plenty of batteries is a must. They are also incredibly inexpensive. It's a good idea, while you have electricity, to make note of your local stations and mark them on your battery radio.

Cell phones are a modern marvel reaching a point of such common use as to be entering that long list of things we take for granted. Remember that they will not work if the cell towers are down or damaged. And they certainly won't work after they have lost their charge. the ability to recharge you cell phone in your car is important.

Other areas of communication, simply for peace of mind, is contact with family. It's a good idea to have two family members, preferably in quite different locations, assigned as communication contacts. That way, if you are in crisis, you need notify only one person, saving your limited resources. Other members of the family and friends should know who to contact for information when you are out of touch.

Yes you can go bonkers. Everyone in Alaska understands "cabin fever". One of the worst things about being stranded in your home without modern conveniences is the abundance of TIME. With no vacuuming to be done, and no television to watch, adults as well as children can easily become agitated, grumpy, even despondent. The key to sanity is keeping busy and entertained. Have books on hand and games, cards and crayons. Gather around the dining room table or throw pillows on the floor and pretend you are the Waltons or live in a Little House on the Prairie. Just keep busy and be aware that there are needs beyond food and water. Another of those needs is physical exercise. If you have exercise equipment gathering dust, this is a good time to use it. If not, try calisthenics with the kids. Go for a walk if it's appropriate. Be creative.

Time will become irrelevant in a few days. It will either be daytime or nighttime. People will be hungry or not...tired or not. Grumpy or not. It's a good time to sit down with pen and paper and reevaluate your life, goals, hopes and dreams. Lots of time for thinking and setting priorities. It's a good time for conversation with loved ones. It might even turn out to be one of the most valuable experiences in your life.

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