Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Winter Emergency Preparedness

Every winter lately, Seattle (as well as many other American cities) gets hit by some sort of really bad storm. Whether it be ice, rain, floods, snow or wind, something happens that shuts down power for a day or more; floods streets so you can't get around well; or causes traffic disruptions.

I've been fortunate not to be affected by too many problems - and a power outage for an evening is sort of fun once in a while (if you have a gas or wood burning fireplace).

But I'll never forget the year a windstorm knocked out power to our home for 7 days, and last Christmas we were snowed into our cul-de-sac for eight days.

So I try to stay as prepared as possible. I try to strike a good balance between having PLENTY of supplies on hand, but not having my home or garage filled with emergency supplies that become clutter. I don't want my emergency supplies to prevent me from enjoying my home. I don't want to have an unusable shower due to having dozens upon dozens of packages of toilet paper and paper towels stored in there. (I actually saw a TV show about a woman who did that!)

Do you know how to get home to your house more than three or four different ways (if applicable)? Do you know more than one route to your favorite two grocery stores? Do you know which local websites you can check for street closures or emergency info (assuming you have power?) Do you have flashlights, candles, matches, and firewood?

Which is the best radio station in your area to keep you informed about current traffic and weather conditions, especially when a disaster strikes?


- Wrap a gift or write one holiday card

- Eat some fruit if you haven't already today

- Quickly declutter one room, if any need it

- Sort mail table and pay any bills that came in

- Recycle latest magazines/catalogs you are done with

TODAY'S PROJECT: Emergency Preparedness

Three years ago, on December 14, Seattle had a major windstorm that left much of the city without power. Many homes, including mine, lost power for a week.

We were woefully unprepared for that long of an emergency. Not only did we not have enough firewood, nor a way to heat very much food, but we also didn't have enough gas in our cars. We'd started the week on quarter full tanks.

Nor did we have any cash to buy things with - the neighborhood stores didn't have power, and led people on flashlight tours of the stores, then wanted cash payments because their electronic cash registers were down.

We took friends in when we could, cooking outdoors and keeping warm with the fireplace, for two days. But then we ran out of firewood. We then accepted the help of other friends. It was time to abandon our cold, dark 40 degree house for a few days.

After the hard-working utility crews got our power back on seven days later, I vowed to never take power for granted again. I definitely have noticed myself turning off unused lights way more than I used to.

I also never wanted to be that unprepared again. I had a cord of wood delivered, and though I use a log or two from time to time, I treat the majority of the pile as untouchable, saved for an emergency. It's stacked neatly outside my home, protected from rain.

I have plenty of food stocked, more than one manual can opener, and two pans I can cook on my outdoor fire with. I have two boxes of Duraflames I don't touch or allow myself to use up (They are lousy for putting out heat, but nice for light in a dark house, and help get real wood fires started faster). And just to be sure I'd have dry wood in an emergency, I have three bags of wood stored in the garage. I know from our post-storm experience those three bags would provide enough wood for four hot meals for four people before burning all up.

I bought a couple more comforters. We thought we had a normal amount (two per bedroom) but when you are sleeping on the floor in front of your fireplace, in 30 degree weather, hoping you won't run out of wood in the night, you need a comforter under you and two or more over you. (We should have thought to drag mattresses off our beds in front of the fireplace, but didn't in all the stress).

I keep my car's gas tank as full as possible at all times now, during the winter. I'll even stop sometimes, if I happen to drive past a non-crowded gas station, and fill it up even if I still have 3/4ths of a tank. Filling my gas tank is one of the tasks I enjoy least in life, but I never want to be that low during a winter emergency again.

What would you do if your power was out for an extended time? We used to think we'd just go to a hotel, but we never anticipated an entire city of over a million people being out of power at the same time. The hotels were all sold out. Plus we didn't really have enough gas to drive to a hotel without stressing about running out of fuel on the way there.

How would you keep warm, how would you keep up with the news, how would you cook your food, how would you contact relatives to check on them? (I'm the only one of my family who still has a corded Princess phone. The power works differently for the phone system, so we had power to the phone line the entire time. My family members had cordless phones that need to be charged up or plugged into the wall, so they were incommunicado during the entire emergency week). Remember that even if your cell phone is charged, it won't necessarily work. In a city-wide power outage, the cell towers that move the phone calls around are probably out of power too, so your cell phone will be useless.

Do you know how to light the pilot light on your gas appliances if they normally have an electric switch? Do you know how to light your gas stove using matches, not just the switch?

You probably have enough batteries for your flashlight for a day long emergency. But do you have any idea how fast you go through flashlight batteries when your power is out for a week and you need a flashlight to find your clothes in your closet, your pets under beds, your food in the pantry? And you can't buy more batteries because the stores are closed or sold out of batteries because 1 million people in your city suddenly bought and hoarded them, or because you don't have any cash to buy batteries and the store's cash register is electronic?

Like me, you probably have a LOT of candles in your house. But when you're keeping a candle lit in the bathroom, kitchen, hallway and living room all at the same time, 16 hours a day, you burn through candles a lot faster than you could ever anticipate. (I liked having a few "lights on" in rooms we used frequently, so we didn't have to wander back and forth with dangerous drippy tapers).

And while you can sort of read by the light of one candle, it gets tiring after a while. You'd really need three or four candles to read comfortably or play board games with your houseguests. Experiment with it sometime and see - be sure to close your curtains to shut out any streetlights that might cheat the experiment by sending light into your house.

I found out a few helpful things: such as using Cyalume lights in the bathtub to help small children be less afraid to bathe in the dark. (Fortunately our hot water heater is gas). I learned you can easily cook scrambled eggs and pancakes over an open fire outdoors, but they cool off very quickly in the cold air so they should be eaten immediately.

What would you do if your gas AND electricity went out at the same time? We were very grateful for having both a wood burning fireplace, a gas fireplace AND a gas water heater. But our stove and oven are both electric, so we were cooking outside on our fire pit. We were very lucky it didn't rain or snow on our cooking fire.

Spend some time tonight looking through your supplies, and talking with your family about what you would do in case of flooding, fire, earthquake, snow, a tree hitting the house, and loss of power. You can do it gently and make it a fun adventurous topic so your kids don't get scared or depressed at all the "What if's."

Duraflame Log Safety FAQ

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