Prepare for More Frequent Power Outages
By Carolyn Nicolaysen

On April 8th 2009 the Wall Street Journal reported that the electrical grid in the United States is compromised:

"Cyberspies have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system, according to current and former national-security officials. The spies came from China , Russia and other countries, these officials said, and were believed to be on a mission to navigate the U.S. electrical system and its controls.

"The intruders haven't sought to damage the power grid or other key infrastructure, but officials warned they could try during a crisis or war. Specialists at the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit research institute, said attack programs search for openings in a network, much as a thief tests locks on doors. Once inside, these programs and their human controllers can acquire the same access and powers as a systems administrator."

Just one day later, April 9th 2009, the San Jose Mercury News reported on the sabotage of phone lines.

"Police are investigating four severed fiber optic cables in San Jose that left tens of thousands of area residents without phone service this morning and prompted the mobilization of Santa Clara County emergency communication systems. Santa Clara County officials have declared a local emergency after they said someone intentionally cut an underground fiber optic cable in south San Jose, causing a widespread phone service outage in southern Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties today that included disruption to 911 emergency phone service.

"John Britton, a spokesman for AT&T, said it appears somebody opened a manhole in South San Jose, climbed down eight to 10 feet and cut four or five fiber-optic cables. Britton also said there was a report of underground cables being cut in San Carlos . The outage initially affected some cell phones, Internet access and about 52,200 household land lines in Morgan Hill , Gilroy and Santa Cruz County , according to the Santa Clara County Office of Emergency Services. The cell phone networks affected are Verizon, Nextel, Sprint and some AT&T.

"'We've never to this extent in recent history had this kind of phone outage,' said Gilroy police Sgt. Jim Gillio. ATMs in South Santa Clara County were not working. Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy cancelled all elective surgeries in response to the emergency, according to county officials."

This outage began at 2:00am and 911 service was finally restored at 5:00pm. After considering these reports, we must acknowledge the possibility that power and communication infrastructure in the United States is precarious. I am sure we are not alone in the world with this vulnerability.

How can we prepare to be without power for an extended period of time?

Are we prepared to cook without power? Gas stoves will continue working during an electrical outage, but their electronic ignition will not. You will need to light your stove with a match. You will need a supply of matches for this purpose. You will also need a plan in place to educate family members in the proper use of the stove. Children should be taught that only an adult is allowed to turn on and light the stove. They should be taught to recognize the smell of natural gas and propane. If a burner is not turned completely off or if someone turns on the stove top and then walks away before the gas ignites an explosion or poisoning could occur.

It will be important to have a camp stove, grill, fire pit or solar oven available for use. Never burn charcoal, gasoline, or propane-powered equipment inside your home. This equipment should only be used outdoors. Use of such equipment indoors may cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500 Americans die each year from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning. You cannot see, smell or taste this gas. Because of this, death can occur before anyone is aware there is a problem.

Carbon monoxide is created any time oil, natural gas, propane, kerosene, wood or charcoal is burned. Non-electric appliances such as furnaces, hot water heaters, stoves, space heaters, fireplaces, wood stoves and a car idling also create carbon monoxide. When a house is tightly "closed up" this gas can build up and become deadly.

Many natural gas or propane appliances will work even when the power is out. Most water heaters operate with a pilot light so they function even when the electricity doesn't. Most furnaces however, won't operate during a power outage because every forced air heating system requires electricity to run blowers. Gas appliances with electronic ignitions will not work without electricity to ignite the natural gas. Most other appliances will not work, either.

This means your emergency plan needs to consider the the functions of these appliances, and how to accomplish the same tasks without electric power. Clothes dryers can easily be replaced by hanging clothes on a line outside to dry. Yes, a ?no-brainer?, but how many young people in their 20's have ever dried their laundry this way? Store soap, a rope clothesline, and clothespins for this purpose.

To wash clothing you can make a simple "washer" by purchasing a five gallon bucket with a lid. Cut a hole in the center of the lid large enough to accommodate the handle of a new plunger. Place water and a small amount of liquid laundry detergent in the bucket. Add a few pieces of clothing, place the plunger in the bucket, replace the lid and secure it. Plunge away to agitate your wash. Clothes may be rinsed in the same manner.

Heaters can be replaced using a wood burning fireplace, layering clothing, or wrapping up in a blanket or sleeping bag. Be sure to have firewood and kindling stored, and blankets, comforters and sleeping bags kept clean and easily accessible. Never use your stove top or oven for heating. Unattended, carbon monoxide can build up, fires can occur and children can burn themselves.

Water can be heated for washing dishes or bathing by using a stock pot or roasting pan full of water on a camp stove or grill (outdoors).

Did you know that many utility companies maintain a list of critical customers? These are people who have medical or other life threatening conditions and cannot be without power. If you are in this situation, or have a loved one who is, check with your electric provider to see if they keep this type of list. Even if they do, you should have a plan to care for this individual in your home or there should be a plan to evacuate them when an outage takes place. Check with your public safety agencies (fire, police, and ambulance) to find out their procedure for such situations.

Portable generators provide a good source of emergency power, but if installed or operated incorrectly they can become deadly.

* Do not connect generators directly to household wiring. Power from a generator can back feed along wiring and electrocute anyone coming in contact with the circuit. A qualified, licensed electrician should install your generator.
* Make sure your generator is properly grounded.
* Keep the generator dry.
* Plug appliances directly into the generator.
* Make sure extension cords used with generators are rated for the load, and are free of cuts, and worn insulation. Plugs should be grounded.
* Be careful not to overload the generator.
* Do not operate a generator in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces. Generators can produce high levels of carbon monoxide, very quickly, and can become deadly.
* Use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) to help prevent electrocution and electrical shock injuries. Portable GFCIs installation is easy and units are available for less than $30.00.

To avoid shock and electrocution:

* Never operate a generator in rainy or wet conditions
* Never touch a generator with wet hands
* Never use electrical appliances that have gotten wet
* Never connect generators to exposed cables or electrical wires in your home
* Never get near or touch downed or sagging power lines outside
* Never engage in an extremely dangerous practice known as ?backfeeding?. Backfeeding involves connecting a generator to your home's wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet without using an appropriate power transfer switch.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 220 people died from generator-related carbon monoxide poisonings between 2000 and 2005. Many people don't realize these generators are not made to be used inside the house or an attached garage. Now you know.

Avoid food poisoning

Power outages will mean your refrigerator and freezer could become harbingers of serious illness. When food is not kept cold or is not fully cooked soon after the power fails it can become very dangerous.

More than 250 diseases can be caused by bacteria found in contaminated raw or undercooked foods, such as meat, milk, eggs, fish, or shellfish. Keeping foods cold and cooking them before they reach room temperature will help prevent food borne illness. (See Meridian article: Storing Food Safely)

Freezers should always be kept full, as this will preserve foods longer when the power fails and will help your unit run more efficiently - and saving you money at other times.

When an outage occurs, doors to refrigerators and freezers should be kept closed as much as possible. Post a note on the door to remind everyone not to open the door. When it is time to cook or eat, make a list of items needed and open the door, retrieve them and close the door quickly.

Freezers that are part of a refrigerator-freezer combination will keep food frozen for up to a day. A free-standing chest or upright freezer will keep food frozen solid for two days if it is fully loaded and kept closed. A half-full freezer will keep food frozen for a day. If food is still cold to the touch, it is safe to cook and eat.

Some refrigerated items can be kept safely at room temperature for several days. They include: jam and jelly, butter, margarine, ketchup, mustard, pickles, relish, olives, and fresh uncut fruits and vegetables.

During power failures, water purification systems may be compromised. Be sure to keep informed and do not use tap water if it looks or smells odd. You should have safe water for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene stored for just such an occasion. Set some of this water next to every sink in the house to remind family members not to instinctively wash their hands or brush their teeth with tap water. (See Meridian article: Water Storage - What if the Tap Goes Dry)

For more tips, review the Meridian article: When the Power Fails in Winter. It will give you more insight into keeping your family safe should your power be interrupted or cut off for an extended time. Now is the time to make preparations and educate ourselves so we can calmly and confidently care for our family when the power fails.