Living in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains we're no strangers to tough winters. Winter storm warnings and October blizzards are things we expect. Even this past week when the first big fall snow storm hit us hard, knocking out our power for two days, we weren't surprised. What did surprise us is that so many of our neighbors and friends weren't prepared and we know they aren't the only ones. The effects of a nor'easter has east coast residents facing a similar situation today, but instead of 200,000 without power as it was in our state, there are millions without power and many are expected to be without electricity for at least a week. It's not hard to imagine that the vast majority of Americans have never thought much about how to survive without power for a few days, let alone seven.
If you know bad weather of any kind is headed your way, there are many things you can do last minute to prepare, but doing so puts you and your family at risk. Winter preparedness in every climate needs begin not as the leaves begin to fall or when the rains come, but every day through out the year. A winter crisis is the worst crisis. It is the time of year when we're the most vulnerable due to the elements. It takes a lot of energy to keep warm, so making sure that our family has everything it needs to get through a winter storm with no power is one of our first priorities as we continually work on our emergency prepping all year long.
Just as in every emergency situation you must have enough food and water on hand to keep your family hydrated and fed until the weather subsides and the roads are clear. In our situation last week, we had plenty of water stored but we did not need to use it. We took careful precautions to keep our faucets dripping to make sure our water pipes did not freeze. We even had warm water because the pilot light on the hot water heater kept the water warm enough for hand washing. But when we realized the power shut off was going to be long term, we were glad to have quick and easy food to make. Not just because of cooking off the grid takes more planning and time, but because its important to conserve physical and emotional energy at the beginning of any emergency. So quick meals such as prepackaged snacks, PBJ's or the ability to heat canned food can make the first few hours easier to bear while settling into the fact you're going to have to tough it out, whether it's a few hours or a few days.
The following is a list of what we do to make sure we're prepared for winter emergencies besides our regular storage of water, food and first aid supplies to get through an emergency situation and what we do to insure our family is kept warm during the power outage.
- First, we notify our utility company immediately when the power goes out, no matter what time of the year. The sooner they get the report the sooner they'll get our power back on in most instances. Power company's work on large areas first and then whittle outages down to smaller and smaller areas. Do not wait hours to report your outage as your power might be out even if your neighbor's is on which will likely mean your wait time will be even longer if your outage is in an isolated area as compared to an outage that encompasses a larger area.
- Do mitigation now to reduce the chances of losing power by keeping your trees trimmed away from power lines. We recently had to ask neighbors next to our property to trim their tree that was growing over and under the power lines that lead to our house. In our case they ended up removing the tree all together. However, when we lost our power last week it was because someone else in our area had not trimmed their trees from the power lines and it affected our entire neighborhood when the snow laden tree took out the line. So know that even if you do your part, others might not be taking the same precautions you are.
- We keep a large store of firewood indoors, enough for more than 24 hours of continuous wood burning in case we cannot get outside to our wood pile. If you don't use your fireplace or wood stove often, make an instruction cheat sheet to keep nearby to remind you on how to start a fire and keep it going. If you have a gas fireplace remember you cannot use wood in it. We try to discourage any friends considering changing their wood fireplace to gas as it will not light if you do not not have electricity. (Below are some more ideas that will help if you have do not have a fireplace.)
- We keep on hand an indoor cooking method such as Sterno cans in case the weather is too blizzardy to cook outdoors with the grill, rocket or camp stove. (Do not use outdoor grills or stoves indoors due to fire danger and the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Don't take a chance even if you've read others have done it successfully.) Sterno cans also pose a fire danger so be sure to read the can's warnings before using. Sterno does evaporate after a few months; replace and rotate older cans.
- We keep a battery operated carbon monoxide detector functioning at all times. Even the fireplace can kill you if not properly ventilated through the flue, so be sure to have your fireplace or wood stove checked yearly.
- Once the power goes out we refrain from opening any doors or windows leading to the outside unless absolutely necessary. Doing so lets cold in and heat out. If we do have to go outside to get additional wood for example we do it only during daylight hours when temperatures are usually warmer.
- We keep all family members to one main area in or near our heat source and close the doors of all other remaining rooms. Before closing off the rooms we move all bedding, pillows, sleeping bags, as well as books, toys, games, anything that might be needed or wanted from those rooms during the outage so that we can avoid having to open the rooms back up after they've been closed. Keeping family members all together in one room also helps keep the room heated and the movement of air in and out of the room to a minimum.
- We use clusters of 3 or 4 candles for light and added heat. (We also have hurricane lamps but use those only for a long term outage.) Candles or hurricane lamps are very dangerous, they can easily be knocked over so use with extreme caution and never leave unattended. We place them on study surfaces such as the middle of a dining table or on the kitchen stove and we make sure all are blown out before sleeping.
- We keep a drip going on inside water faucets, especially those furthest from the water intake to our house in order to keep water moving and thus keep the water pipes from freezing.
- We conserve battery power of cell phones by powering them on only when needed and only using flashlights when candlelight is insufficient. You can use a crank charger or car charger for cell phones. However going outside to the car means letting cold air into the house and should be avoided. We have opted to keep our home phone service even though we have cells because it will still work during most power outages and we may not have the ability to charge our phones at some point.
- Having an emergency radio, crank, solar or battery powered (combo ones are better so that you have more than one option) or a battery powered digital television;is important for weather and information updates. Though we have learned if your power outage is limited many local radio stations do not report updates and have replaced local news reporting with syndicated national news reports. This means you may not hear an update about your outage. If you're able to, you'll need to contact the electric company directly for more specific updates on restoration of power.
- We keep on hand disposable plates, bowls, and utensils in order to conserve water if necessary and make it easier to serve meals. The last thing you want to think about is a pile of dishes when your main focus should be keeping your family warm and safe. You'll also be exhausted after the emergency and minimizing your clean up will help you get back to normal more quickly.
- Most of all we don't panic. We keep focused on what needs to be done. Everyone has their assignments or chores, just as we do in our regular day to day life. My husband goes to the wood pile or splits wood if necessary. I tend the fire. We all help in meal preparation. The children sweep up ash and clean up after meals just as they would normally. We work together and remember to have patience knowing this is a temporary situation, and it's good practice for a time when an outage might turn into weeks and if it did we'd ready and know exactly what to do.