Pondering the Darkness

12:00On September 17 of this year, a terrorist squirrel sacrificed itself to bring life for 20,000 residents to a standstill. Throwing itself on the conductors of a high-tension transformer at a Dominion Energy substation, I suspect its last thoughts were 'Oooh, that tingles', but then the lights went out; the squirrel's and ours. The power outage lasted seven hours.

Yesterday afternoon (11/12/22) the lights flickered twice and then went dark. As it happens, I was on the road and noticed that all the traffic signals were dark. Fortunately, the usual traffic crazies were behaving themselves and I made it home safely. Sirens were everywhere. When I arrived, Linda confirmed a wide-spread power outage. We reported it, as I'm sure many among the 1800 account holders did. The estimated time for recovery was 5 hours.They were only off by 3.

Now, power outages are not rare. We live in an area with lots of pine trees; one that is prone to storms, wind, and infrequent, but wet, snow. Outages or more than an hour or so are rare. Yet, those are the ones that are problematic.

Let's enumerate the major elements of our lives disrupted when voltage ceases to flow.

  • 1.Lights go off. (Not a problem during the daylight hours, somewhat more concerning after sundown.)
  • 2.Heat and A/C cease to function.
  • 3.Home networks fail. (Even if your system is supported by an Uninterruptible Power Supply, UPS, that will only last so long. With the network goes your Internet connection.
  • 4.Desktop computers will stop (hopefully without doing great harm to open applications.). Battery powered laptops and tablets will continue as long as the battery lasts, but only as standalone appliances, no network.
  • 5.Refrigerators and freezers stop.A new-ish refrigerator is good for 4 hours before the interior temperature begins to deteriorate, IF you don't open the door. Freezers are good for 24 – 48 hours, again if you keep the doors closed. (Source USFDA)
  • 6.Electric appliances are unusable. Natural gas or propane will continue to flow.
  • 7.Corded TVs and radios are no longer sources of information. It doesn't matter if you have an on-air antenna, the TV is dead. Alexa and Siri no longer exist.
  • 8.More seriously, life-preserving medical equipment will stop.

All of this is predicated on just a power failure. It can be exacerbated by storm damage, winds, heavy rain, flooding, blizzards and/or annoying neighbors with firearms.

So, welcome to the 19th century, but in a well-insulated and weatherproofed home.

Now, I'm not presuming to have any knowledge not already held by any citizen. But, if this outage persists, are you prepared to mitigate the impacts? The good news is that, barring a major natural disaster that disrupts not only power, but also infrastructure over a wide area, water and sewer will continue to flow. Cell service will continue to provide some measure of contact. Natural gas will flow to heaters and stoves. The bad news is that you have to cook, eat, and see and do all that other living-type stuff in the dark. Hey, didn't they tell you that Abe Lincoln did his lessons by fire-light?

Okay. Not a problem. Pile the kids in the SUV and head down the road to an area with lights and pull up a restaurant for dinner and, if you're lucky, a TV with news. Head to the home of a friend or family member. But don't forget that four hours on the fridge. And you still have to go home and bed – in the dark.

So, I'd like to write about some bare minimum preparations. First, I'm sure we all have a hurricane preparedness kit, right? Sorry to burst your bubble. Statistics show that only 39% (4 in 10) have stocks of food, water, fuel, candles, batteries, flashlights (not the one on your phone), etc. I'm thinking that most of you actually have some of this stuff, but just don't know where it is or how to locate it when you have to find it in the dark.

Do you have a grill on the patio or deck? Then, you have the ability to fry, grill, and boil. You just can't bake. (Well, you can, but that's another post.) So, plan a few meals and burn some charcoal or propane. Your propane bottle is full, right? (Ever met a guy named Murphy?) Did you know that your picnic cooler is also your blackout hot box? What keeps cold in can also keep heat in. Wrap your pot, pan, or corning in a towel and seal it in the cooler. I've seen them stay edible and safely hot for 24 hours. While you're at it, make coffee and put it in that thermos. Put hot water in that other thermos. Instant oatmeal is a good breakfast. It's better than a box of toaster pastries, but have one or two of those around, too. Look around your pantry. For each long-life dry meal, think about how you're going to be able to prepare it. And don't forget paper products and service ware (plastic forks etc.). Washing dishes takes energy you may need for something more important.

Keep a box of candles around, along with a box of kitchen matches. Those wooden sticks will light under almost any circumstances. Boy Scouts used to dip the tips and half the stick in melted wax to waterproof them; not to mention that the wax, once lighted, helps them burn longer. As for other light sources, I'll let you use your imagination. There is a myriad of LED battery operated options out there. There are even crank-up lights. (That might be overkill.)

Water? Many of us have a case or two of bottled water around. If you get your milk in gallon or half gallon containers. Clean a few and store water in them if the outage is predicted to persist. The recommendation is at least a gallon per person per day. In a long general outage, the civil water system will eventually shut down or become contaminated. Don't keep that water forever. Three months is about the max before you should water a tree with it and refill them. (Overkill note: If it's a long outage, fill the tub and use that to flush the toilet.)

I hope you see where I'm going here. Use your head. Think ahead. You are ultimately responsible for your own well-being. If you are the head of a family, others are depending on you. You may never need to do any of this. I hope so. On the other hand, Hurricane Isabel put us in the dark for seven days. Hurricanes give you warning. Blizzards do not. And Mother Nature is being ever fickler and more unpredictable these days. While the Internet can give you advisory sound bites, your local library can give you books and guides with good explanations and guidelines. But get there before the lights go out.

Wait a minute, dude! I've got a generator. No problem. I'm good. Uh huh. We have one, too – Dude. How much fuel have you stored? How old is the fuel? When is the last time you ran and tested the generator? I've heard the plaintive cry of more than one generator owner when it didn't start when full of year-old gas. Generators are great tools, but, like any tool, they need to be maintained. I won't go into the safety rules. Just don't run it in the garage, or on the deck. By the way, do you have long enough power cords to reach your refrigerator or freezer? Do you have a plan to run lighting, charge phones or turn on the TV (if you're lucky)? In a long outage, you will need more fuel than you can safely store. A 5kw generator uses ¾ gallon of gas per hour. That's 18 gallons a day (3 ½ Jerry cans). Discuss a lighting and refrigeration safety plan that uses that machine the least amount of time required to keep your family safe. Stick to it. The effects of Hurricane Katrina lasted weeks!

I've exhausted you're a ability to care by about half a page. No one wants to think about this stuff when Sunday Night Football is on. It's a pain to dig out the generator every three months, or make pantry lists, find the candles, or check the 'best by' dates on that stuff. And it gets harder and less important the longer the time between events.

Just don't ask to borrow my grill, my generator, or a gallon of water, because it will happen. We all know that the plan goes out the window when the storm starts. But at least you'll have a plan. Most don't.

Thank you for listening.

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Friday, 23 February 2024