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Grid is down Now What?

Every community is at risk of experiencing a blackout, from short 15 min power outages to widespread blackouts that can last for days or even weeks. Every home in every region can experience a blackout, and while these events are usually a minor, short-term inconvenience, widespread power outages can quickly become an emergency. However, by preparing yourself ahead of time, you can avoid most of the pitfalls that people experience during a blackout. So when the grid is down, you will be ready for it.

What causes Blackouts?

Blackouts can occur for many reasons. Earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and severe thunderstorms are all possibilities, as are wildfires and extreme temperatures. Manufactured reasons include forced blackouts to prevent damage or to divert power. Aged and outdated power grids can also quickly become overwhelmed from increased power usage, usually when homes and businesses grow their use of heating or cooling systems.

Natural Causes

Earthquakes: Strong earthquakes can damage power lines and cripple the grid system, leading to widespread power outages.

Extreme temperatures: During a severe heatwave or cold snap, extreme temperatures drive people to crank up the heat or AC, which then drains the power grid of electricity. In many cases, the utility companies are forced to implement rolling blackouts of businesses or neighbourhoods to save power and take the strain off the system.

Severe storms: Tornadoes, hurricanes and severe thunderstorms can cause widespread power failure. Lightning can cause damage to electronics, while high winds can snap power lines and damage power plants.

Flooding: Whether caused by rain, a tsunami or a storm surge, flooding is a dangerous natural event that can wreak havoc on the electrical grid system, leaving some areas without power for days at a time.

Space Weather: Commonly overlooked by much of the public, space weather, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CME) from our sun, can effectively shut down the world’s power grid systems. While most of these events are small and cause little electrical disturbance, much stronger flares and ejections are possible and can cause considerable damage. Like I mentioned during some TAP meetings, in today’s climate, I think this is not an unrealistic scenario. Grand Solar Minimum (GSM) is here, and the combination of what is happening in space and here on earth makes a CME way more realistic than ever before. 

Human Causes

Rolling blackouts: Usually caused by severe weather or extreme temperatures, rolling blackouts can also be imposed by the utility company for scheduled maintenance or repairs.

Rolling blackouts are generally done to take the strain off of an over-taxed grid system. While inconvenient, rolling blackouts tend only to last a few minutes to several hours and are simple to deal with. Most utility companies announce rolling blackouts online and on public radio stations.

EMP: Electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) generally refers to the solar storms that can cause blackouts and a type of weapon used to disable all electronics within a striking area. Powerful and practical, these weapons can power equipment that isn’t plugged in at times, though usually, they fry up all electronics beyond repair. Fortunately, this kind of advanced equipment is not widely available and is used almost exclusively by the military. Read more on this here.

Grid is down lasting 0-24 hours

Power outages that last less than a day are generally easy to deal with. For most people, these blackouts are an inconvenience. Many stores and other public places may be up and running using generators. Below are some of the first steps to take:

  • Identify the cause: Blackouts have many different reasons, and it’s essential to know why your community is experiencing a power outage. Scheduled rolling blackouts are usually no problem, but sudden blackouts from bad weather or a power grid failure can be more long-term and serious.
  • Get home: Unless this is part of a short rolling blackout, try to get your family together and back home quickly, stopping only for necessities. Your home is your safe spot.
  • Get cash: When the power goes out, most ATMs and credit card machines won’t work. If any stores are open, there’s a good chance that they’ll only take cash. Try and get as much money as you can from the bank or a working ATM.
  • Unplug everything: When the power does turn back on, it may cause power surges, which can cripple your electronics.
  • Fill the tub: Unless this is a short, scheduled blackout, there’s a good chance that water will fail or be deemed unsafe. By filling your bathtub, jugs and other containers with water, you can ensure access to drinking water for at least several days.
  • Do not call 000: except for a life-threatening emergency. Also, do not make phone calls unless you absolutely must to stay safe – calling friends and relatives to check in overwhelms cell phone towers and phone lines, leaving those in a dire emergency unable to contact for help. If you must, send a text rather than make a phone call.
  • Leave the refrigerator/freezer closed.

Blackouts lasting 1-7 days

Power outages that last more than a day are almost always due to severe weather or natural disaster. Blackouts lasting more than a day also tend to be more common in rural or outlying areas, so there’s a chance that the power companies have not finished restoring power yet. If your power outage lasts more than a day, continue to follow the guidelines above by keeping phone use to a minimum and leaving the fridge and freezer shut. Blackouts rarely last for more than a few days, so don’t panic. Stay indoors unless you must go out for supplies. Traffic lights will probably not work, making driving difficult and more dangerous than usual.

Tap into your water heater for additional drinking water (as long as it’s cool enough). Consider evacuating to another location with power, especially if it’s extremely cold or hot outside, or staying home becomes too uncomfortable. During the day’s heat, many public places, such as movie theatres, community centres and shopping centres, can serve as heating or cooling shelters.

Blackouts lasting 1-4+ weeks

Power outages lasting for more than a few days are rare, but they happen. Long-term blackouts are likely from severe weather, a severe natural disaster, or a powerful solar storm. If severe weather persists and you live in a rural area, power can remain off for two or three weeks. If you haven’t already, it may be good to consider evacuating to somewhere with power. 

Other problems, such as water purity, personal safety and hygiene, become more apparent if the blackout lasts for more than a week.

Being Prepared

A widespread or long-lasting blackout is a disaster, and like most disasters, the best way to survive in safety and comfort depends on being prepared ahead of time. Remember, blackouts can occur at any time, day or night, and in any weather. It can impact you in different ways, hence I mentioned to have a bag with good shoes in your car. What if there is a major traffic chaos, you can stay with your car hoping it will resolve, and that is fine. What if the blackout is due to a CME, if you read the Russian study, which is based upon an EMP, you might just be unlucky wearing your thongs.

Emergency Kit

An emergency kit is a must for every home. Including necessities such as first-aid, extra food and flashlights. Emergency kits are easy to put together and can be tailor-made for your climate and family. For more information, the American Red Cross offers a power outage checklist.

Let’s get you started

Emergency plan: Every emergency kit should have a copy of your family’s emergency plan, covering details like a meeting place, evacuation options and what to do with family pets during an emergency. Write out and discuss a solid plan with your family, and rehearse it at least once every year. This is pretty much what Mr. A will do as part of the planned meeting, write out an evac plan. 

First-Aid kit: First-Aid kits can be large and elaborate or small and simple. You can make your kit or buy one of the many pre-made emergency kits available at most drug stores. A basic first-aid kit should include antibiotic ointment, bandages and bandage strips, medical tape, safety pins, assorted gauze pads, hand sanitiser, scissors and saline solution.

Shelter: Some will say blankets, sleeping bags etc, but I do not expect you to have that in your bag, as alternatives are available. Remember the big garbage bags I mentioned and the “space blanket” they will do fine here in AU. 

Food: At least three days of nonperishable food per family member (including your pets!). Many experts recommend storing two weeks worth of food if you can.

Extra batteries: Be sure to properly store all batteries and inspect them periodically for any sign of damage.

Portable is/FM short-wave radio: These can be battery-powered or hand-cranked and will be your lifeline in a mass power outage. Make sure you know which stations to turn into for news and weather.

Water: Bottled or clean water kept in a sealed container: You should store at least three days’ water for every family member. Remember, your pets need drinking water too.

Cooler: During winter in cold climates, a cooler packed with snow can help keep perishables from spoiling.

Lighters, matches etc. in a waterproof container. Pocket knife/hunting knife

Flashlights: Keep at least one per family member with extra batteries. LED lanterns and flashlights are brighter and last longer on batteries than standard incandescent light bulbs… There are also affordable and handy “puck lights” available that are usually used to light up the inside of cabinets but that are very useful for lighting up hallways, stairways, etc. I prefer the “head” ones, you can use them to put on your head so you keep your hands free. Flash lights are bulky, don’t go for the rechargeable get the ones that use normal batteries.

Candles: Candles are the tried and true method of lighting the home during a blackout, and it can be handy to have at least a few stashed away with some matches just in case. However, both the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommend using candles due to the increased fire risk. Their caution is justified, as fires are very common during a power outage.

Cash: The ATMs will be down without power, and many banks may be closed. When this happens, any stores that remain open will be cash-only. Consider stashing at least $500 cash in small bills to use in a power outage.

Household bleach: Bleach can be used as a disinfectant and even treat water for safe drinking. It takes 8 drops of household bleach to treat 2 liters of water.

Simple emergency setup: David motioned about the power packs, they are great, something like this gets you out of trouble. Look how campers do it, KINGS is cheap and generally not to bad, I had good experience with kings setup. If you can afford it buy lithium batteries to charge as they charge in half the time. Make sure you have a few bags of baking soda in case of a fire. Baking soda is the best way to “kill a fire”. Do your research.

Books, cards and games to help stave off boredom

Change of clothing, including sweaters and thermal underwear in cold climates, personal hygiene items, including feminine supplies, waterless shampoo, soaps, wipes and hand sanitiser.

Extra medication, if possible.

At least 3 days worth of baby supplies, including diapers, bottles, clothes and formula.

Other Preparedness Tips

Get into the habit of filling up your car with fuel. Try keeping it at least half-full if your community loses electricity, and the petrol stations don’t work you can get at least around. Train yourself to remember your car’s fuel consumption. For example, I know mine is 7 litres on a 100km in town, which doubles when I do heavy 4wd driving. It gives me a sense of travel radius. 

Keep extra bags of ice, or even zip-lock bags full of frozen water, in your freezer. This will help your freezer stay colder longer and serve as an emergency ration of drinking water once the ice melts. Generally, it is good to keep the fridge and freezer fully stacked. Once frozen, the power consumption of the freezer will go down. It is called thermal mass. 

If you or a family member is on life support or needs other power-dependent medical equipment, call Energex. Most companies keep a list of homes requiring life-support power and contact everyone on that list long before a scheduled rolling blackout occurs.

Consider investing in a small set of solar-powered outdoor garden lights for cheap lighting at night. You can put them outside to charge by day during a blackout and then bring them in for light at

night. This is essentially “free” power for light. It also allows you to conserve batteries for your lanterns and flashlights.

Staying Safe

Remember if your house is the only one with lights on you stand out. Staying safe is about being “grey”, do not draw attention to you. Go with the flow don’t stand out. A light on a hill stands out. If a power outage goes on for a few weeks, you do not want to draw attention. It is good to remember that, so start turning of the lights, become “grey” sooner than later. 

Power lines: During a power outage, many people can be killed by wandering too close to damaged power lines. Remember, just because you don’t have power, does not mean that all power lines are “dead.” Stay away from downed power lines during a blackout.

Spoiled food: Food left in a refrigerator can spoil in hours. During a blackout, keep the fridge and freezer door closed unless necessary to get something. Make a mental picture of the fridge content so you can grab it quickly, and yes the fridge light will be of a swell. Suppose the blackout may last a while. Cook and eat all perishable food first to avoid wasting it. Throw away any food left out in temperatures 5C for more than two hours. The food should be safe as long as the freezer remains below 5C and the ice has not completely thawed. However, if any food smells or looks strange, or that you doubt at all throw it out. 

Overheating: Hyperthermia, or dangerously high body temperature, is another concern during a blackout, especially during the summer heat. I think it is more of a problem than Hypothermia where we are, but do not get fooled that you cannot get Hypothermia it can happen. Make sure to stay hydrated and avoid any strenuous activity.

Pet safety: It’s easy for some to overlook their animals during a disaster, but their needs must be met as well. During a disaster, it’s essential to keep them under your control. Also, if your animal got loose, confused or frightened, they could bolt, and during a power outage, there are few resources available to help track down lost pets. Your pets are also likely to suffer from overheating in extreme temperatures, so keep an eye on them and make sure they always have access to fresh water and a safe place to escape the heat or cold.

Looting: During a widespread blackout, unprepared people may become desperate. Desperate people do desperate things. In addition, some hooligans may try to take advantage of law enforcement being stretched thin. Looting and vandalism are common during blackouts, especially at night, and can begin within days of a widespread power outage. Like I said, it’s best to keep a low profile and not advertise that you have power by turning on too many lights at night.

Fire: Many people choose to carry extra candles in their homes in case of a power outage. If you decide to use candles as well, be careful! Candles have the risk of fire. Use your candles responsibly by… and never leave a burning candle unattended, even for a few minutes.

Carbon monoxide: Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odourless gas that can be fatal to people and animals. It’s released by combustion, and so is most likely a problem from burning fire, coal or gas indoors. It can kill very quickly, so it’s important to invest in a carbon monoxide detector for your home. During a blackout, never burn coal or wood, and never use your generator, grill or portable gas stove indoors.

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