Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Small Emergencies Are Good For Us

Last night, the power went out over a wide region where I live. I was in the bathroom at the time, and suddenly it was very, very black. At first, I thought my wife was playing a joke on me by switching off the breaker — she's like that sometimes. So I chuckled and called out, "nice trick, honey!" But she claimed it wasn't her — all the power was out in the house. I asked her to look across the street and see if the lights were on at the neighbors' house, which would tell us if it was something that was only affecting us. As it turned out, the entire city was black.

In each of the rooms, small emergency lights turned on when the power went down. That gave us immediate ability to navigate around the house. But we noticed that a couple of those lights that remain always plugged into an electrical outlet so they can charge internal batteries, were almost of no use because the light from them was so dim. Who knew? But now we know that we need to buy some replacements, and that we need to test them every once in a while to make sure they'll work when the power dies.

Becky grabbed a flashlight (we have flashlights in every room in the house…except, unfortunately, the bathroom). So there I sat in the dark. "Hey honey, would you point a flashlight under the door?" She did, and that helped me accomplish the task at hand.

A few minutes later, we had our decorative Christmas candles happily lighting up the kitchen and dining room, a couple of small oil lamps illuminating the bedroom and office, and we each had a flashlight in hand. The power outage was no big deal, because we were able to maneuver around the house and prepare to go to bed and wait for the sun to come up.

But, for those who have a serious need to have electricity for more than just turning on the lights, it could be a disaster. Some folks have medical devices that operate on electricity, and when there is a power outage, it can be a life-threatening situation.

Or if the outage lasted for days, or even weeks as it does in some cases where severe weather tears down power lines all over the city, that type of incident could cost lives. Ice storms can rip down virtually all the above-ground power lines, leaving a city without power for weeks on end. In the middle of a bitter winter, people without the ability to operate their furnace can be in trouble pretty quickly. Just last month, there was a massive power outage in western Washington that left tens of thousands of homes without power. During that outage, two elderly men died of hypothermia in their homes. Residents resorted to driving around in cars and trucks for no other reason than to be able to run the heater.

All utilities — water, power, natural gas — are vulnerable to situations that will shut them down. It's good to have little emergencies like the one we passed through last night, to tune us up and remind us that we need to be prepared to do without those amenities. Small emergencies show us where our weak points are, so we can correct them. Some areas we might strengthen are:
  • Water that is stored in easy-to-access form so that we can continue to drink and cook and take care of sanitation while waiting for the supply to return to normal. 
  • Alternative methods of cooking (camp stove), so you can have hot meals and warm drinks to help prevent the onset of hypothermia.
  • A supply of easy-to-fix foods and hot beverage mixes. 
  • Lighting, of course. Keep flashlights in every room (even the bathroom!) where they can be quickly grabbed. Check the flashlights now and then to make sure the batteries are still good. And keep a supply of fresh batteries on hand.
  • A power generator to handle serious needs like medical or just to keep the refrigerator and freezer cold or to run the furnace. 
  • Warm blankets or sleeping bags and clothing so you can bundle up as the house grows colder. 
If the cause of the power outage is such that it's going to be a long time before power is restored, you might have an evacuation plan in place so you can travel to an unaffected area and have someone to stay with there. Of course, that only works if the roads are open and able to be safely traveled upon. If you can't do that, you must shelter in place and be prepared to take care of your own needs until life returns to normal.

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