I know this blog is primarily aimed at folks preparing for a long-term crisis, but I have a unique perspective on living without electricity after a regional disaster that I thought some might find informative. I live in the hills of northwestern New Jersey, and I have lived through three sustained (my definition: 4 or more days each) power outages caused by extreme weather events during the last two years. These power outages were caused, respectively, by Hurricane Irene, 19 inches of wet, heavy snow in October before the trees had lost their leaves, and Hurricane Sandy. I have learned important lessons from each power outage that I would like to share.
A wood stove and lots of firewood are necessities. I live in a county with tens of thousands of acres of forest. Today, however, most folks are too lazy to cut and process firewood. As each generation passes, fewer and fewer know how. Fortunately, I grew up on a farm and my dad always heated our home with firewood so I learned the joy of hard work and more about trees than I could begin to write here. As the temperatures plunged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the inside temperature of homes in my neighborhood dropped to near freezing and those of us with woodstoves became havens of comfort each day for friends, children, the elderly and neighbors in need of warmth. I think anyone who doesn’t have a wood stove and 10 cords of split, stacked and dried firewood in the backyard by October is unprepared. It’s a low-technology essential that works on simple principles, it warms your home, cooks your food and dries your clothes. Get a wood stove. Trust me when I say your wife won’t complain about the mess that comes with one when it is warming your house. Get a bigger wood stove than you think you need, it will make it easier to load and you won’t have to work as hard cutting small pieces of firewood. The side benefit is that a wood stove will save you thousands in heating costs each winter and will pay for itself in short order.
Water. It seems so obvious, but even most country folk today are dependent on electricity to run their well to provide them with water. Having a generator is much more useful if it powers your well. For starters, this means you can flush your toilet, wash your hands and take a shower, things we take for granted when the electricity is running. I learned after our first extended power outage that I wanted to get a generator and a lot of gas cans to protect the venison in my freezer. After the second one I realized that I wanted a Reliance transfer switch to hook up my generator in a safe way to my electrical box so that I could provide power to my well pump. As a bonus, I could also run my freezers, a refrigerator, a few lights and outlets. But I needed water. For a longer-term crisis, I am looking into a hand pump such as the Simple Pump that has the capability to pump water by hand from my existing well. Because I believe in redundancy when it comes to water, I also picked up some high-quality water containers that hold 7 gallons of fresh potable water. You can use it for drinking, cooking, washing and filling up the toilet. There’s a stream about a mile from my house that I could drink from if I had to (I strongly discourage this unless it is a true survival situation because of water-borne illnesses found in most surface streams), and I would be glad to haul the water back home in a wheelbarrow each day if it came down to it.
A generator coupled with a transfer switch. I made this a separate category because I think it deserves special attention. I personally bought a 5,000 Watt generator that can surge to 6,250 Watts, made by Briggs and Stratton. There are myriad choices in this area so do your research, evaluate your budget, and get the most appropriate generator for your circumstance. It has performed admirably for over 100 hours and has only required minimal maintenance. For starters, it is recommended that you change the oil every 40 hours or so. You should also drain the gas out when you are done using it. No problem here, but if you don’t use the generator for six months you ought to run it for half an hour or so. This means you are bi-annually putting a little gas in, running the generator, and draining the fuel out. A model which lets you easily detach the fuel line to drain the leftover fuel out makes this chore much less of a hassle.
I suggest having a two-week supply of fuel on hand, because it is amazing how quick it runs out during a crisis. I never would I have believed that I would live to witness gas lines, gas rationing, people driving to other states to get fuel, etc. until I actually experienced it. It can happen. That being said, I believe that within two weeks after a regional disaster, supply chains will develop to get things moving around again. If they don’t, then we are talking about a situation that is truly dire and you’d better think about how to live without electricity from any source for the long haul. My generator burns a little less than 4 gallons of gas in twelve hours (I turn mine off each night), so 10 gas cans gets me there if I conserve a bit. I could get by on eight hours, but my wife immeasurably appreciates being able to open and close the refrigerator with four kids. If I have learned only one thing in thirteen years of marriage, it is that having an appreciative wife is invaluable.
I had a neighbor with very large whole-house generator that was burning over 10 gallons of gas a day, and he ran out of fuel within a few days. So bigger is not always better. I also learned that diesel fuel is more available than gasoline during these situations, so if I were to do it again, and money were not an issue, I would consider a diesel, natural gas or propane generator. I found out the hard way that having a can of carburetor cleaner and a small piece of wire is invaluable because carburetors get gummed up easily if a little gas sits in there for a few months. If this happens, you have to clean it (which is easy once you have done it once) or run your generator on partial choke all the time (which is less than ideal and may not work). Drain your gas completely when you put it away and this shouldn’t be a problem.
Food. This was actually the least of our worries. We had plenty of food on our shelves to last for months if necessary, and we didn’t really even plan it that way. I guess with four kids and one income we are just used to buying in bulk when sales hit at the local grocery store. There has been a lot written already on this subject, so I will defer to other essays on this topic.
Medical Supplies. Everyone has different needs here, but it is just good sense to keep a few extra of whatever you need around in case the pharmacy isn’t open (which it won’t be if the store doesn’t have a back-up generator).
Feminine hygiene products. Keep a few extra boxes around.
Lighting. Because we had plenty of firewood and a fireplace, we lit the fireplace each night and everyone in the family loved it, but it didn’t light up the bathrooms or the other rooms in the house. And when I went out in the dark each night to turn off the generator and bring it in the garage, a lantern came in really handy. LED lanterns that can run over 100 hours on one set of batteries are great, and are easily available on Amazon.com. Get two of them because you need one in the bathroom and the rest of the family doesn’t have to sit in the dark while they wait for your return if you have two. I also purchased two old-fashioned kerosene lanterns and a gallon of kerosene after the last power outage. The more flashlights and batteries you have around the better when the power goes out. Those little LED book lights are nice luxuries as well when you want to settle down and read a book in the evening.
A hand crank radio. This is one item I used every day during lunch. We sat around and listened to the local AM radio station as people would call in with all sorts of useful information, such as which gas stations had gas to sell and a generator to power their pumps, which stores were open, where one could get potable water (some buildings have emergency generators), what roads were cleared of trees and now passable, and where the electrical crews were working. On top of this, listening to a radio lifts your spirits when you have no other contact with the outside world.
Relationships with your neighbors are vital. No one knows everything, and a plumber, electrician, farmer, mechanic, doctor, dentist, police officer, etc. each possess unique and valuable skills and knowledge. You can only access those skills and knowledge if they trust you before the crisis and are regularly communicating with you during the crisis. Build friendships now with your neighbors. Find out what their strengths are. Forgive those whom you have had past disagreements with, as those arguments will seem truly unimportant if the SHTF. One of the unexpected benefits of Hurricane Sandy was that I built several long-lasting friendships with neighbors as we spent two weeks cutting trees, dragging branches, splitting wood and stacking firewood. We worked together to get warm, make food, get gasoline and other supplies, take showers and watch children. And everyone in my area has give a lot of thought about surviving when the government and the utility companies cannot help you. I can honestly say it was, in some ways, a blessing.
Cash. Try buying something when nobody in town has power and you find out real quick that cash is still better than a credit card or a debit card. A few hundred bucks was more than enough for the short-term outages I have experienced, but a longer-term situation would require more. In a truly long-term disaster situation, actual goods that you could barter with would have the most value.
Intangibles. I would like to conclude by suggesting that maintaining a positive attitude in spite of adversity is of immense value. Being a person who smiles while working to meet daily challenges lifts the spirit of everyone you come into contact with, and your attitude will have a marked impact on children. My children actually think that power outages are something to be celebrated (no school and you get to pretend like you are living Little House on the Prairie)! Having faith helps us see the good that comes with difficulty, and gives us strength to forge ahead, no matter what.
Our world is becoming more like a Rube Goldberg machine every day. Our infrastructure and supply lines become more fragile as they become more dependent on new layers of technology. My advice to everyone is to build redundancy into every system you control, and pass on practical knowledge to the next generation. A co-worker who was not prepared for any of these circumstances suggested to me that preparing for them was wrong, that it amounted to cynically saving yourself at the expense of your neighbor. I replied that quite the opposite was true: those who are prepared are far more able to help their neighbors than those who are not, and my real-life observations actually back up this assertion. Thank you for taking the time to read this essay and God Bless!