Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Going Dark

Things have gone dark here.

No, I don't mean the fact that I haven't posted here lately. It's that our little town on the Oregon coast suffered a five hour power outage, from late last night until this morning. Ironically, it was eye opening.

Now, as problems go, this was pretty minor. We aren't talking hurricane Katrina. We had a fairly typical winter storm here, fifty-sixty MPH+ winds, 20 foot surf. This is what they call a "pineapple express" storm, so it was warm for this time of year.

I was still up when the power went out, working at my computer. It was expected, yet not expected. We'd been warned when we moved here six years ago that we should expect regular power outages in the winter. "It could be out for days," we were warned. Living where we do, there's also always the unlikely but serious possibility of a tsunami that could not only cut off power, but wipe out roads and other services for an indefinite period.

We prepared for it that first winter, but it simply never happened. Thereafter, I let things slide, and it never came back to bite me. We had mild winter after mild winter, and our location on the long-thin, coastal power grid turned out to be more reliable than our more experienced coastie friends just a mile up the highway. We had lots of power glitches and the occasional momentary brownout or outage, but no extended power failures at all.

Okay, it was still only five hours, and as things go, five hours when most people are asleep, which is convenient as things go. It wasn't cold enough for the lack of heat to be an issue, and unlike the typical hurricane power outage along the gulf coast, heat is almost never an issue here (certainly not in the winter). But for most of those five hours, I was thinking to myself, "this could be out for days. What will we do?"

Fortunately, not all of the lectures on preparedness had been lost on me. We always have plenty of fresh batteries on hand, and we keep most of them in an easily found location. Not an issue.

Fortunately also, we had plenty of flashlights at ready. A couple weeks ago, our sage friends had warned of a storm system out over the Pacific, the one that ultimately pounded California about a week ago. We were again reminded of the multi-day power outage. So I went shopping for new flashlights. We were well prepared in that regard. We had plenty of canned food and drinkable liquids on hand in case roads washed out. It wouldn't have been nice, but we could have lasted for days or maybe even weeks if we'd needed to.

But I was caught by surprise on several other things, and there were lessons to be learned. Maybe you'll find something useful in them as well, no matter what your local threat is (hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunami, flood, earthquake, blizzard, landslide, volcano, whatever, you probably have one or more in your area)

1. Keep everything charged. Our cell phones continued to work, but neither of our two phones had a full charge, and I wasn't sure where the car chargers were after a recent trip.

2. Keep the car fueled when a storm is coming. We had less than a eighth of a tank of diesel in Herbie. Even if we didn't need to evacuate (and actually, that would have been enough to get us inland to safety, if that was all that was required), the car is a useful source of power. With fuel to recharge the battery once in a while, we could keep the cell phones charged, and even use (or recharge) the laptop computer. It has its own radio, and can recharge batteries to run portable radios and flashlights should we run out.

Gas pumps need electricity. That should be obvious, but it's one of those things you don't think about. We simply don't drive enough to use that much fuel. There isn't much excuse for me to let things get below half a tank, and I'll try not to in the future.

3. Have an emergency radio on hand. Get a good one. Fortunately, I was prepared on this count. Late last year I spotted a nice weather-alert radio on clearance at Target and picked it up. It runs on C-cell batteries (long battery life, and interchangeable with many flashlights), picks up national weather service broadcasts, includes an alarm clock, thermometer, has a built-in emergency light, and even a compass in the unlikely event we ever had to walk out of an emergency.

Of course, a radio is no good unless you can find it, and it has fresh batteries. And while you should have at least one good one, it doesn't hurt to have others, either cheapies or portable ones you use for other functions, scattered around the house and garage.

4. Think about the pets. Fortunately, we had plenty of food on hand for our cats, but I was worried about our cat, Banzai, who is still sick and barely eating. His meds would have been a problem in an extended outage. But the biggest problem, as it happens, probably would have been water. When I said "drinkable liquids," I didn't mean water. I don't really know how much, if any, bottled water we have on hand. We have lots of soda and Snapple around, so we wouldn't have died of thirst any time soon, but who know if the cats would (or should) drink any of these things? We'd probably have had to collect rain-water for them. Not an ideal situation.

So, when considering your emergency food and water situation, keep your pets in mind as well.

5. LED flashlights are the greatest thing for emergencies since sliced bread. No, they won't replace regular flashlights (yet). You still sometimes need the extended beam of a powerful conventional light, or the bright area lighting that a conventional battery lantern can provide, but LED flashlights are good general-purpose lights, especially for indoor (or in-tent) use, and that have some tremendous advantages.

The bulbs (well, technically, there are no bulbs, but never mind that) never burn out, and the battery life is outstanding. Some lights will run for 200 hours or more on a set of batteries. That means that in most emergencies, you can afford to just leave one running most of the time. This can be especially important if you have frightened children to comfort. If you're bored, you can read comfortably and not feel too guilty about it. And unlike other extended light-sources like candles, oil-lamps or lanterns, there's no fire hazard or carbon-monoxide issues.

These are currently more expensive than conventional flashlights (but not that much, and prices are falling) and they'll pay for themselves quickly in battery savings. (We also have an LED crank light, which works well and requires no batteries at all.) You owe it to yourself and your family members to have several of these on-hand.

I recommend keeping a small one at each bedside and at strategic locations around the house. Flashlights are no good if you can't find them, and you should be able to find them in the dark. I hung one of my single-LED pen-lights in the kitchen attached to a glow-in-the-dark keychain. I did it almost as a joke, but it worked perfectly, and it was the first light I located after the power went out. Using it, I quickly rounded up all the other flashlights and got things ready for the rest of the night.

6. Finally, the big lesson is that any level of emergency preparedness is better than none at all. Even if you don't have a proper emergency kit (and I confess, I don't), buy some flashlights and batteries (you need them around the house anyway), stock up the pantry (hey, got to eat!), get some bottled water (got to drink), keep plenty of pet-food on hand (it's annoying to run out), and buy some more blankets when they're on sale. If you're putting off doing everything, do something. If you pick these items up when you're out shopping anyway, and spread it out over time, the effort is near-zero, and the cost will be lost in your usual household spending.

But it's morning, the storm has eased up for the moment (though a forecast for another week of rain, at least, promises that road closures from flooding and landslides are likely), and the power is back on.

But I won't take things quite so much for granted this time. Time to go charge my cell phone and fill up the car.

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