How to Survive Your Next Power Outage

A new report finds that climate change is placing undue stress on power plants and transmission lines, which could leave you in the dark more often than you'd like.

July 19, 2013

Blackouts: Great for star-gazing, not so much for your sanity.

Blistering heat waves, deadly tornadoes, powerful hurricanes, and "superstorms"…what do they all have in common? The ability to knock out your power within minutes and leave you in the dark for days and possibly even weeks. And it's getting more and more likely that you'll be dealing with more and more power outages, according to a new report from the Department of Energy.


The report, titled "U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather," says that fossil, nuclear, thermoelectric, and renewable energy sources will all be stressed by increased air and water temperatures, decreased water resources, increasingly intense storms, flooding, and sea level rise. In some places, the impacts are already being felt, the report adds. Nuclear power plants have had to either shut down or reduce their power output because the water temperatures in nearby rivers and bays were too high and couldn't cool the plants effectively. California wildfires, which scientists have linked directly to climate change, have damaged 35 miles of transmission lines, knocking power out to 80,000 households in San Diego for several weeks. All these things will inevitably lead to blackouts or brownouts, the report adds.

While the report calls for state and local governments to work with the private sector to boost resiliency and better prepare for the impacts of climate change, there are simple things you can do to better prepare for the aftermath—when your lights go out and you don't want to lose your mind (or that freezer full of local, organic food you've worked so hard to preserve). Here are some tips collected from various federal and state departments of energy as well as public health experts like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

Before the Power Goes Out:
• Stock up on flashlights and batteries and prepare an emergency preparedness kit. Make sure your kit includes the phone numbers of your local power company and water utility, whom you can call to find out whether it's safe to drink tap water during a power outage.

• Make sure you have a radio that runs off batteries or solar power. It'll keep you connected to warnings about downed power lines in your area and, at the very least, will keep you entertained while your TV is out.

• Get a solar-powered cellphone charger or have a backup battery that will allow you to send out texts or calls (provided the cellphone towers are working).

• Have an emergency cash stash of between $50 to $100; if your power's out, the ATM's will be, too.

• Stock up on beeswax candles. They burn cleaner than petroleum candles, which is important if you're cooped up inside—particularly important during winter power outages. Plus, they last longer than some soy candles, so you'll have light to read by and keep yourself entertained without having to use up precious batteries to power a flashlight.


• Load up on easy-to-prepare meals. Most disaster-prep kits call for a good stock of canned foods, but those could expose you to bisphenol A (BPA), a toxic chemical used in the cans' epoxy linings. Of course, in an emergency, any food is better than no food, regardless of packaging. But you can buy dried food, which can be reconstituted with boiling water, that's packaged in BPA-free pouches, rather than cans. Mary Jane's Farm sells a certified-organic food storage pack that provides a week's worth of dried food for one person.

• Have plenty of ice packs on hand. They can be used to keep perishable foods cold when the power goes out and, wrapped in a towel, can be used to keep yourself cool during a summertime outage.


• Make sure you have plenty of water (at least one gallon per person per day).

• Buy a food thermometer and keep it handy (you'll see why below).

• Have board games, printed books, magazines, and newspapers! If you're the type to rely entirely on electronic media to stay informed, stock up on reading material so you aren't bored out of your mind when your computer and TV aren't functioning.

• Finally, fill up on gas, so you can head out of town, or even recharge your phone from the car's electrical system, if the need arises.

When the Power Goes Out:
• First, unplug all your major appliances, so when the power does come back on, a surge doesn't damage equipment.

• Second, if it's summer, close all your shades and curtains to keep your home from becoming a heat sink. If it's winter, do the opposite—and let "solar energy" provide you with electricity-free heat.

• Eat through your fridge, but leave your freezer alone. According to the CDC, a full freezer with its door shut can keep food frozen for up to 48 hours. Perishable foods in your fridge, however, will need to be consumed. Keep your food thermometer handy to make sure your food's temps remain below 40ºF.

• During summer power outages, take cold showers to cool off and drink to stay hydrated. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which will dehydrate you.

• Another way to stay cool? Wrap an ice pack in a towel and place it on the back of your neck.

• Head outside! At least to cook. If you have a charcoal or gas grill to make a warming hot meal if it's winter or to prepare foods without heating up your house if it's summer, but whatever you do, be sure you're cooking in a well-ventilated area, and not in your garage or house. Carbon monoxide poisoning is one of the most frequently reported health problems following disasters, according to the CDC, because people use improperly vented generators or other gas-powered equipment.

• Relax, read your books, or play your games and don't phone the power company every few hours to find out when the power is coming back on. You'll drain your phone battery, which is best reserved for emergencies, and it won't get your power back on faster.