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When the Lights Go Down in the City

By: Jorge Palafox

September 22, 2011

What do you do?  We are no strangers to “rolling black-outs”.  These sudden power outages can cut into our busy lifestyles, causing a bit of frustration and inconvenience. They are not usually long and are no reason for major safety concerns.  If the power is out for less than 2 hours, then the food in your refrigerator and freezer will be safe to consume. While the power is out, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep food cold longer.  Of course, if no power results from a major disaster, such as an earthquake or flood, terrorism, etc., then refer to those sections for additional preparedness and response issues. 

A major power outage for a significant amount of time, say a few hours or more, can begin to impact our daily routines, especially when driving in the streets and the traffic lights are impacted.  There are other concerns that might arise as a result of long periods in the disruption of power.  Minimizing food loss becomes a high priority, as well as keeping all members of your household healthy and comfortable.  Remember the most vulnerable are the elderly, the infirmed and youth, especially small children and infants.  Cooling and heating systems may fail, home oxygen devices may no longer function; back-up portable electrical power systems become essential.


Food becomes the most critical.  Hopefully, you have your back-up drinking water supply.  That ol’ trusty water cooler will no longer be dispensing thirst quenching ice-cold fluid.

If the power is out for longer than 2 hours, follow the guidelines below:

• From the Freezer section: A freezer that is half full will hold food safely for up to 24 hours. A full freezer will hold food safely for 48 hours. Do not open the freezer door if you can avoid it.
• From the Refrigerated section: Pack milk, other dairy products, meat, fish, eggs, gravy, and spoilable leftovers into a cooler surrounded by ice. Inexpensive Styrofoam coolers are fine for this purpose. Stock up on a few.
• Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of your food right before you cook or eat it. Throw away any food that has a temperature of more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit (or 4 degrees C). Please Note:  A digital quick-response thermometer, can quickly check the internal temperature of food to ensure safety.
• Eat stuff from the fridge first, then the freezer; finally using your canned food. If the emergency situation resulted from a major catastrophe, then you would have a final food source in your emergency cache of supplies that should include the military MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat).
• Make sure to keep food in a dry, cool spot; and don’t forget to keep it covered at all times.

As a reminder, the emergency preparedness kit is important.  For a power outage, make sure the kit includes these items:

• Water – one gallon per person, per day (3–day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)
• Food – MRE type, again 3-day for evacuation, 2-week supply for home
• Flashlight – the shakable kind that doesn’t use batteries is preferred, but, if you must, stock up on extra batteries (Stay away from candles due to extreme fire risks)
• First Aid Kit – don’t forget a 7-day supply for medications and any special medical items
• Multi-purpose tool
• Sanitation and hygiene items
• Personal documents – such as, medication list, lease to home, birth certificates, you get my drift, what is important
• Cell phone and chargers
• Extra cash
• Emergency contact information

Special issues include:

• A back-up power source in your evacuation plan for those in your home that are dependent on electric-powered, life sustaining equipment
• A non-cordless telephone; those that you just plug into the phone jack, think Slim-line or Princess telephone
• Always try to keep your car gas tank as full as possible.  As a minimum, think “fill-up” when you see the indicator on the dash of your car pointing to the half-way mark.

Lights off

During a power outage, turn off and unplug all unnecessary electrical equipment, including your sensitive electronics.  Any appliances, like stoves, equipment or electronic devices that are being used when the power outage occurs, should be immediately and safely disconnected or turned off.  When the power finally comes back on, a power surge or spike will damage equipment.

A good idea is to leave one light turned on, so that when the power returns, you’ll know that electricity is working again.  You should try to stay off the roads if possible.  Those traffic lights will be out, and the road will definitely be congested.

Portable generators will be good back up sources.  There are a few things to consider.  When using a portable generator, you should only connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets of the generator to your home’s electrical system.  Definitely, get professional advice if you are thinking of getting one.  Make sure that the generator you buy is rated for the power that you think you will need during a major emergency.

Food safety becomes an issue.  Never taste food or rely on appearance or odor as a way to test its safe consumption.  Some foods may look and smell ok, especially if you are hungry, but in room temperature too long, bacteria become the culprit.  Food-borne illnesses can start growing quickly.  There are types of bacteria that even cooking won’t destroy.  Make sure to keep current stock of laxatives and anti-diarrheal meds in your First Aid Kit. 

Food in the freezer colder than 40 degrees F with crystals on it can be refreezed.  Use your common sense.  You’ll know when food is not right.  Usually, any food that has an unusual odor, color, texture or feels warm to your touch is an indication that it’s not suitable to consume.  No pun intended, but go with “your gut feeling”.

Alternate Power Source Hazards

In long-term power outage events, people may turn to alternate sources to generate heat, cooking or electricity.  The biggest hazards to watch out for are carbon monoxide (CO) poisonings, electric shock and fire.  Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices in the home or enclosed space, such as a garage, basement, crawlspace.  Even watch out for the partially enclosed spaces.  Candles should only be your last resort due to natural gas leakage and contact with other potential flammables.

When used outdoors, any unit should be placed away from doors, windows and vents that could potentially enter the home.  Installing CO alarms at strategic locations in the home at every level is CA law now.  Most importantly the alarms provide early warning of high levels of CO.  When you hear the alarm sound, that means it’s time to move to fresh air quickly, or at least try to get to an open window or door.

PG&E has a good interactive that illustrates the power outage issues in our region, and types of response to expect.

For Storm Outages:

For Heat Outages:

For Gas Outages:

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