The most important thing about the power outages in the mid-Atlantic is that no one expected them to be this bad, so no one was ready. The storms on Friday were stronger than expected, so no one, including the power company, was prepared. That meant that for 3 million homes, the loss of electricity was a total shock, arriving in the middle of a heat wave. Almost a million households still lack power five days later.
For many of those households, had this been a blizzard or a hurricane, bottles of water would have been purchased, gas cans filled up, prescriptions refilled, pantries stocked. While I think there’s a lot lacking from most people’s ordinary pre-storm supermarket runs, at least they offer a measure of preparedness. But that’s not something that happened here.
For many people, including the 24 dead, the storm was a disaster. Something good, however, can still come out of this – the realization that preparedness is not something you do occasionally when the weather forecasts a major storm, but something that becomes part of your life. Because otherwise, there is simply no way to be ready for the myriad of small disasters that happen in ordinary lives.
Blizzards and hurricanes come expected. But many disasters simply don’t. Earthquakes, tsunamis, random power outages (like the one in 2004 that took out much of the power for the Eastern Seaboard), terrorist attacks and simple weird stuff happen when they happen – and no one can know when to be ready. Moreover, the ordinary personal disasters that strike us are the ones we are best able to prepare for when things are good – the job loss, the personal illness, the fire – those are things you can only get ready for during times of comparative stability.
This is a very different attitude than the “let’s stock up on bottled water at the grocery store when the storm is coming” relationship to preparedness. Frankly, it is a heck of a lot less hectic. There are no trips to the grocery store before a storm – I make a point of staying out of stores during the crazy times. I don’t spend money on bottled water, either, since like just about everyone in the US who isn’t Amish, water comes out of my tap. I fill up used Soda bottles with water. In summer, I use them to top off the freezer so we have both ice and cold water to drink as it defrosts. Keeping the freezer full at the low point of summer (when last year’s harvest is mostly used up and this year’s isn’t in) just makes sense. In winter, we use natural coolth to keep things from spoiling.
There are things to do when storms are coming (and, in fact, we’ve got severe thunderstorms expected here). In winter or spring, we bring some wood inside to ensure dry and accessible wood. In summer I fill the buckets and bins with water for watering animals, washing dishes and bathing. I catch up on dishes and laundry if I’m behind and give the kids baths. I wash my own hair. All these things CAN be done without power at our house, but it is easier to do them first and start ready.
In many ways, preparing for power outages is easier than trying to outsmart and avoid them with technology. Even if you make the race to the last generator at Home Depot, there are a lot of problems. First, there’s the gas – do the local stations have power for their pumps? Your $1600 generator isn’t worth a lot without $4 gallon gas. Second, do you know how to use it safely? Every major outage involves someone dying because they thought they did – and didn’t. Inadequate power cords, refilling while it is on and placing your generator somewhere that can cause carbon monoxide poisoning are big issues. Frankly, I just don’t worry much when our power goes out – even on the hottest days, we’ll miss the fans, but we can camp out in the best insulated spots in the house and keep comfortable in a host of ways.
Whether you are going to use a generator or a rocket stove, the key is to know what you are doing – and the only way to do that is to integrate it into your life enough to have some practice before you need it. The same goes with storing food and water, keeping cool in the heat or warm in the winter, dealing with lighting, having a supply of medications, etc… What really ensures security isn’t a rush to the store, but a plan, practice and purpose that makes being prepared part of your daily life.
If you are learning this lesson the hard way, my sympathies – I think most of us learned it that way. If I can help someone figure it out BEFORE the outage, well, so much the better for all of us. Just remember, it happens to all of us sooner or later.