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Blog | Are You Prepared for a Cold Winter and Power Outages?

In July (note: 1996), Annie received information that this winter will bring "heavy-wet snow" and that "roofs will collapse ... some in shopping centers ... unusually heavy snows" and that we may even have a white Christmas in areas of the country that normally wouldn't. Our Northeastern Oklahoma (and Arkansas) was one area she felt might have a white Christmas. She generally felt that the whole US will have an unusually cold winter with ice storms, extending as far south as Austin, Texas. And that in some areas (Dallas was mentioned) that there will be several ice storms that come "like waves."

Already we have seen unusually heavy snow in many parts of the country. And while I was working on this newsletter, we had an ice and snow storm that went as far south as Dallas (CNN reported it as going from Michigan to Texas). Will the rest of the winter bear out these predictions? We don't have any way of knowing. But the best approach is to prepared for the worst and hope for the best.

A good approach to preparing for any emergency is to do a simple risk analysis for your area of the country and for any expected situation. Consider what might happen to cause an emergency? In preparing for a cold winter, what might happen to warrant it being considered an emergency?

First, power outages are likely during winter storms. Snow builds up on tree limbs; they break off and fall into power lines, disrupting utility power. Or ice builds up on power lines, causing them to break.

An extremely cold winter storm may cause water pipes to freeze, disrupting water availability or later breaking when it warms up and the pipes thaw.

When winter storms are forecast, it is normal to go to the grocery store and stock up on food and other supplies. If there are large amounts of snow or ice, it may disrupt travel both for us and for trucks which replace the store's inventory.

Most of what I've discussed is just common sense and anyone that's been through a major winter storm will likely already know this. But this is being given both as a review to prepare for the upcoming winter, and an example of how to do a simple risk analysis that might apply to any situation.

Now that we've done our risk analysis for a potential winter storm, we need to be prepared to handle: power outages, which means we may lose the ability to heat ourselves (with an electrical-based heating system). We will lose normal lighting. If you have a well driven by an electric pump, as we do, you lose your normal water supply. If you lose your water supply you need water to drink, wash with, and for toilet flushing. If the winter conditions make driving impossible, or so dangerous it's not worth attempting, you may need additional food supplies.

To prepare, we need to plan for: light, heat, water, food, electricity (optionally), and communicationsin that order. You may have noticed that I ranked light before heat, and yet, if you are cold you will want to get warm as soon as possible. But if the power goes out at night, you will need a flashlight or other light source to find adequate clothing and/or build a fire (or to light another emergency heat source).

What forms of lighting devices should we consider? First, everyone should have a flashlight with good batteries near their bed, to be prepared for any emergency that might happen at night. And if you are concerned about not having fresh batteries when you need them, there are dynamo hand-pump flashlights, like the popular DynaLight, that does not require batteries. Chemical breaklights are another good option for emergencies, especially if there is any danger of a gas leak, as they don't generate a spark or have a flame that might ignite escaping gas. If gas leaks are not a concern, consider candles and kerosene lanterns (with a supply of kerosene). And of course battery lanterns are good, assuming the batteries are good and you have spares if needed. Now for heat. We need heat to warm ourselves and to prepare food. If your house is equipped with a fireplace or wood-burning stove, you need a good supply of wood on hand. If you have camping equipment, you may already have a camp stove that burns either white gas or propane. Have it handy, along with a supply of the proper fuel. There are camping-style propane heaters that are available. These are designed to operate from a single, small disposable propane cylinder (14 or 16 oz). Typically the heaters will provide heat for 5 to 10 hours per cylinder. With an adapter you can use the larger bulk propane tanks, like the ones on your outdoor propane cooker. And for a small heat and cooking source, there is an Emergency Heat and Snap-On Stove unit that uses a gelled ethanol fuel. A 16-ounce can will burn for approximately four hours.

Now for water. The best thing you can do to prepare for almost any emergency is to put up a supply of stored water. It is recommended that you have at least one gallon (preferably two gallons) of water, per person, per day, with a recommended two weeks supply. For two people this is 28 gallons (minimum). Probably the most readily available and inexpensive containers to store water are the 2-liter soft drink containers. Be sure and wash them thoroughly. For stored water add 8 drops of clorox bleach, or use 6 drops of the Aerobic 07, that is commercially available. Fill the containers to the drop to remove any air deposits. Store off the floor, out of direct sunlight, in a relatively cool location. There are also commercially available containers made especially for storing and transporting water.

Now for food. Your pantry is your first supply of food for most emergencies. Obviously, if you don't have a good supply of food in your panty when a winter storm is forecast, go to the store and stock up. Especially consider canned items that can be eaten without being heated. If power fails keep the refrigerator door closed as long as possible. One advantage of a power failure in a cold winter (in contrast to summer) is that you can move the food in your refrigerator outside to a secure area (such as a garage or closed-in porch) to prolong its life. Consider what food you currently have on-hand and what you might need to handle a two-week period.

I mentioned electricity as an option. If you can afford a generator and have a place to keep it, you may choose to have a backup electrical generator. But the details about selecting and using a generator requires more explanation than I can cover in this short newsletter article. Another option for limited electricity is a portable emergency power system, such as the Powerizer to handle small power requirements.

And finally I mentioned communications. The minimum every family should have is a small portable AM/FM receiver to be able to get news about how widespread the problem is, and what is being done about it. The combination solar/dynamo powered radios are excellent in this type of situation, since they don't depend on having batteries on-hand.

I hope this helps you start thinking about the things you should do, if and when, this cold winter turns into an emergency.