The Pragmatist: Assembling an emergency kit, for essentials like heat and light, before storms arrive and the power fails.
For those without power after Hurricane Irene, the sound of a neighbor’s generator was a loud, grating reminder that some people were actually ready for the storm.
My family fared well enough during our weeklong outage, although we could have used some anti-anxiety medication. But the chug of my neighbor’s generator still nags at me because it’s a reminder of how poorly prepared I am for an extended outage this winter.
To remedy that problem, I turned to three experts in disaster planning: Arthur T. Bradley, author of “The Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family”; Ed Charlebois, vice president at Travelers Insurance; and Richard Serino, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Their advice: With a handful of key items and a fresh look at some familiar household objects, you can endure a few snowbound days without power — even if you don’t have $600 or $1,000 for a generator.
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The obvious priority during a winter outage is keeping warm, since most heating systems won’t work. People with fireplaces and wood-burning stoves will do fine, of course, but everyone else needs a backup plan.
Like a kerosene heater. Or not.
My family had one when I was young, but if anyone bumped into it and triggered its sensitive emergency shut-off mechanism, we would spend a half-hour battling the stench of kerosene fumes by opening doors and windows to the freezing wind. (
Bradley, a NASA engineer, said he much prefers propane-fueled indoor heaters, like the Mr. Heater Portable Buddy (around $75). As with any heater, users must leave a window slightly open for ventilation, and read the manual closely. But this heater can warm a medium-size room nicely for hours on a small propane cylinder, and when I bumped it slightly, it shut off without a stink.
In winter the heat not only keeps people warm; it keeps pipes from freezing and bursting. The good news here is that well-insulated homes with even a modest heat source can usually survive at least a day or two in sub-freezing temperatures without risk to indoor pipes, Bradley said. If you leave the faucets trickling, that will also help.
But not all pipes are created equal. The ones running from the basement to the kitchen often skirt an outside wall, and if neither wall nor pipes are insulated, you could be at risk. So take five minutes and wrap those pipes with insulation tape (Frost King, about $11 for 15 feet).
After heat comes light.
People with fireplaces can generate heat and light simultaneously, but everyone else should consider tossing their old conventional flashlights and buying LED lamps, which use the same batteries but last far longer for the same amount of light.
Ideally, you’ll have three types: a lantern for communal gatherings (eGear’s 10-Day Lantern is around $35), flashlights for general use (Energizer Industrial 2-LED, $9.50) and headlamps (Brinkmann 3-LED, two for $11) for reading and maintenance tasks.
A fourth light was suggested by a camping-store employee. “My friends had a bunch of solar-powered lights in their yard,” she said. “They’d just pull them inside at night and put them out again in the morning to charge.” (Hampton Bay’s Solar LED Walk Lights are about $3 apiece.)
But in the quest for light, beware of candles. “You wouldn’t believe the number of fires that happen where people leave candles unattended,” Charlebois said.
Next, food. For this, head to a camping store, which makes sense because living through a power outage is just like camping, only slightly more miserable.
In a blizzard you won’t have access to the grill, so pick up a propane camping stove (Optimus Crux Lite, $40). In a ventilated room, use it to boil water for some of the surprisingly tasty mix-and-serve meals campers live on (like AlpineAire Mountain Chili for two, $8). Use disposable tableware (50 Dixie plates, $4; 48 plastic utensils, $1) and, to light the stove, waterproof matches (Coghlan’s, $2 for 160 matches). For music to dine by and news, get a battery-powered radio (Radio Shack pocket radio, $15).
Preserving your food and beverages in a snowbank is a questionable strategy, unless your strategy somehow involves extremely fat raccoons. A good alternative, Serino said, is to use the fridge.
Here’s how. Keep your empty water jugs and, a few days before the storm, fill them with water, leaving an inch of space at the top. Turn the refrigerator and freezer temperatures to their lowest settings, freeze as many jugs as possible and pack your freezer and refrigerator with them.
“That’ll keep everything colder longer,” Serino said. “That can make a difference, especially if you’re keeping medication in there.”
Or, perhaps, alcohol.
Another benefit of the ice-block approach is that you can drink the water after it melts, although you may want to sprinkle it with lemonade powder to disguise the stale taste.
Or, perhaps, alcohol.
The impulse to drink heavily may be strongest if you are one of the forlorn 15 percent of Americans who rely not on public water supplies but on well water and electric pumps. That would include me, and for us unfortunates an outage means no water for food, showers or toilets. You see my point.
My wife, brilliantly, filled our bathtub with water so we could flush the toilets and wash a bit. But the morning after the storm we woke to a nearly drained tub — the result of a leaky plug.
Advance testing would have helped, but a better option is the AquaPodKit ($25), a bathtub-size bladder with a siphon. The bladder won’t leak, and you can use the water for drinking, not just flushing and cleaning.
Luckily, we had recently replaced an old toilet with a low-flush unit. We then closed off our other bathrooms to conserve water. My wife and I both have jobs that depend on the Internet. I managed to connect through a Verizon iPhone, which can transmit a wireless Internet signal to nearby devices. (Similar services are available from all major cellular networks.)
But without chargers, I had to save power by severing all network connections I wasn’t actively using, and keeping screens extremely dim.
As Irene approached, some smart people bought power inverters, which convert electricity from your car into 120-volt AC power, complete with a three-pronged outlet. Buy one (Schumacher’s 140-watt model, about $20) and then, in the next outage, you can plug it into your car’s accessory port and while away the hours with a laptop and the car stereo. The car should be running and, of course, fully out of the garage.
Streets can be impassable in a storm, so if you want to use your car as a de facto generator, stock up on gas (Scepter 2.5-gallon canister, $10.50). Bradley said the National Fire Protection Association recommends that homeowners store no more than 25 gallons, and some cities impose their own limits.
Keep the car’s gas tank at least half full as the storm approaches, Serino added, and have extra cash on hand. Without power, retailers cannot check credit card data.
Finally, Serino said, gather your storm supplies and put them in an old backpack.
“That way, you’re not running all over the place looking for things when the power’s out,” he said.
Toss in a pair of earplugs, too. They’ll come in handy when your neighbor’s generator kicks on.