(above photo from Wobblycat Photography)
During the power outage that affected Toronto, we personally coped with the challenge rather easily. The only thing that would have made things easier for us would be a gas generator running outside and running an electrical cord in to the electric heater we have (but in this case couldn’t use without power) to keep the basement from getting so cold.
Other than worrying about our pipes bursting, we were fine and could have lasted a lot longer, even if we had to shut off our water. We knew what to do, how to handle things and we had the supplies and equipment on hand that we needed to survive. Obviously not everyone has a gas stove but we had camping stoves we could have used. They aren’t that expensive. Not everyone has a wood burning fireplace, but we would have gotten on fine with all our blankets, sleeping bags and survival gear. Actually…we had pretty much everything we needed to survive and in this case it wasn’t all that miserable for us. This sort of event will happen again. The reality is…it could happen again in a couple weeks…even next week. After all, winter has only just begun. How well you can cope, depends directly on your preparations.
Governments (including Canada) and disaster management groups (like FEMA, Red Cross, etc) across the world all recommend having at least a 72hr supply of resources and means of surviving. My years of experience camping and my time in the Forces have prepared me well enough mentally for such scenarios. However, you don’t need my experiences to be prepared though. Just logic, some equipment and supplies, and the ability to keep a cool head and not panic.
Emergencies can hit anywhere in the world, any time of year so I can’t really advise you of what to do in every situation. If you really want to get a better idea of how to be prepared for various disasters, go pick up a couple of books on the subject. There are literally hundreds of them at any decent bookstore because literally hundreds of disasters happen around the world nearly every year. So here are some recommendations I can offer should THIS type of situation happen again. Hell I could probably make a 30min YouTube video just on what we have in our camping packs alone.
- 72hr Kit
Make sure you always have enough on hand to survive at least 72hrs should a massive power failure happen again. This also applies for any type of natural disaster like any severe storm (torrential rain, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc). This would include at least three days of non-perishable food and a supply of water (or the means to purify water). It could also include appropriate clothes for the weather, blankets or sleeping bags, thermal survival blankets, perhaps also a signalling mirror, whistle, button compass, a multi-tool, another good sharp knife, work gloves, a water treatment kit, etc. This list can go on and on and be over whelming so I’m just sticking to some basics.
Your ‘kit’ is something you need to create based on what could possibly happen in your area and is customized to your needs (not mine or anyone else’s). In Toronto, we could get extreme heat or cold, torrential rains, massive blizzards, high winds and freezing rain. The only thing we are unlikely to experience is a massive earthquake or direct hits from hurricanes or F3 (or greater) tornadoes. Although, areas near Toronto have in the past been hit by tornadoes reaching F2 levels.
- Light – make sure your kit has a couple flashlights. The camping headlamps we have are great and served us well. They cast a tremendous amount of light and leave your hands empty for use. At least have some type of flashlight and make sure you check the batteries often and ensure the light works. If you’re going to leave it unused for a long time, remove the batteries and store them with the light in a zip-lock bag. Otherwise, the acid in the batteries may leak making the light useless. Consider also a windup light. We have three various hand held flashlights, three headlamps (ironically I just got another one this Christmas…the day after the power came back on) and a windup light. Our windup radio also has a couple of built in LED lights. Regardless of what type of lights you get, seriously consider getting LED ones. The light they cast is way brighter than regular bulbs and batteries last much longer.
- Windup radio – This was a hugely important tool for us. Without electricity, it was the only source we had for constant news updates. We installed some batteries and it lasted eight days before finally dying (after running all day and nearly all night for eight days, which is pretty impressive). If we didn’t have more batteries on hand (which we have lots of), we could just start cranking it up to get it working again. If you don’t like the idea of a windup one (I can’t imagine why), at least make sure you have a regular battery powered one. Once again though, don’t leave the batteries installed if you’re going to store it for long periods unused. I’d suggest storing two sets of batteries with your radio while in storage (once again an appropriate sized zip-lock bag will be perfect).
- A deck of cards – helps keep you from losing your marbles in times of boredom. Trust me.
- Food – ensure you have about a week worth of non-perishable food on hand. Canned food, energy bars, camping food, MRE’s, etc.
- Water – You’re going to need 2-4L of water per person per day depending on how physically active you will be. Someone chopping wood all day is going to need more water and food than someone who is just lazing around. This could mean a LOT of water depending on your situation and how many people you have with you.
- As soon as you find out that a major storm is pending, fill up your bath tub, pots, buckets, etc with water should you need to shut off your water supply (make sure you know where you main valve is located and that you can always reach it). If your municipal pumping station loses power, they switch to backup diesel generators. If it’s a prolonged outage they will be dependant on their diesel being restocked. If for some reason that doesn’t happen, they will eventually run out and so will your water supply. You can use water that you’ve stored in your tubs, buckets, etc. for washing and that water can be stored aside and for flushing your toilets (a ‘grey water system’). Don’t flush your toilets unless you really need too. If it’s Yellow…let it mellow. If it’s Brown…flush it down.
- Medical Supplies – Keep a good first-aid kit on hand. You never know when you may cut or burn yourself, get a headache or just need some general pain killers. If you’re taking any regular medication, always keep an extra supply on hand and rotate the stock. You should always have at least a week’s supply of your meds. If you require constant medical attention, be sure to establish a ‘life line’ with others who will check on you. Consider taking a first-aid and CPR course.
- A source of heat – This is only a concern in the winter really but it is a major priority. I can tell you first hand that hypothermia sucks and so does frost bite. If you don’t have a fireplace you should consider a camping heater that can be used in tents. They’re safe to use indoors so long as you don’t fall asleep with your face right up beside it. When selecting one of these types of heaters, make sure you talk to the sales person and tell them what you intend to use it for.
- DO NOT use a gas or charcoal BBQ indoors! We’ve had a few deaths from that this week and dozens of people each night being treated for Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
- When you go to bed (be it in a sleeping bag or wrapped up in lots of blankets) put the clothes you want to wear the next day in your bedding with you down by your feet. Your body heat will ensure that you have warm clothes to change into the next day.
NOTE: Don’t worry about seeming like a silly nilly to the sales person. If you go to a camping supply store and ask a sales person for help to make a survival kit, they will ALL say “That’s a good idea”. Like buying a car (or anything else you’re not already familiar with), it’s not a bad idea to bring an experienced camper with you so that you don’t get sold stuff that you don’t need, or get fleeced into buying the most expensive of something when it’s not needed.
*Whatever you buy, be sure to read the manuals carefully and be familiar with how to use everything. All this stuff can get very expensive. A choice needs to be made between buying cheap considering you may never use it, vs. paying more for something that is certain to work should you ever need it. Keep in mind that you don’t have buy everything all at once. Pick away at it over time when you can afford to add to it.
- Strength in numbers – The idea of a Lone Survivor is very Hollywood and very rare in the real world. Even the most experienced campers, survivalists, explorers, elite solders, etc can still go ‘Bat $h!t Crazy’ (not a clinical term obviously) without having someone to talk too. Having more people in your group also means you will all be able to rely on each others knowledge and skills. Assign duties or responsibilities to people to keep them occupied. That also ensures that one person doesn’t have to worry about everything (which can be a stress over-load). Don’t be alone in disasters.
- Keep busy – You’re going to get bored and before long that will have its affect, even if you’re with a group. Play some cards, board games, chop wood, clean, organize your movie collection…whatever, just keep your mind busy. Ever heard the saying ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it’? Nuff said. This is different for everyone so if you start noticing that someone in your group is getting antsy, give them a task to do.
- Keep an eye on the time (especially the elapsed time since the outage started) – the food in your fridge and freezer will only last so long. Don’t open either unless you absolutely need too! Food in your fridge is good for about 4hrs after a power outage and if your freezer is packed full, it should last about 48hrs (in our case it was longer because the house got so cold). If its winter time, decide what you want to keep from your fridge, put it in a cooler and leave it outside (consider adding a large weight on it if you have racoons or other wild scavengers in the area). Throw out the rest. If anything starts smelling funky…toss it. You could do the same with the contents of your freezer too as long as the temps outside never gets near the freezing mark. Daytime highs should be at least colder than -4C to pull this off safely. Keep in mind that the stuff from your fridge though will freeze solid at those temps. The containers for fluids like milk, cream, pop, etc will explode as they freeze solid if the containers are nearly full. I know it’s a hassle but you may have to keep moving the cooler with your fridge contents inside and back out again to regulate the temperature (the average refrigerator is set to about 2C-5C). Add an analog thermometer inside the cooler so you can accurately monitor it.
*Thousands and thousands of people lost all their food this past week because they didn’t think to put it outside or bring it to someone’s house that still had power (or could provide a safe place to store it outside). Had this happened in the summer, it would be nearly impossible to preserve food that needed refrigeration or a freezer but at least you wouldn’t have to worry about your pipes freezing.
- Keep an eye on your pipes – Here’s another place where a thermometer will come in handy. I didn’t already have one on hand so I went and bought one. Find the coldest spot in your home and place the thermometer there. Keep an eye on the temps so that you can decide when to shut off and drain your pipes. If you have to do this, be sure you store as much water as possible if you haven’t already done so (see above about ‘grey water systems’). Once your pipes cool to about 4C, it’s time to make sure all your taps are running. This helps prevent them from freezing (flowing water doesn’t freeze easily). Once the temps drop to freezing, it’s time to act. Sure flowing water doesn’t freeze easily but copper pipes will start getting slushy and will eventually clog up and then burst. This is NOT a situation anyone wants to deal with. So do your best to avoid it. Just don’t act prematurely though because once this is done, life in your home will get even more miserable.
- Know when to call it quits – Yes I know…the last thing anyone wants to do is abandon their home but there will come a point when you just can’t stay any longer or your life could be on the line. Setup a plan with your family, friends or neighbours BEFORE a disaster. Stay in touch with them and know where your safe havens will be if you have to flee your home. Establish a plan for when you have no communication (no phone line and your cell phone is dead) so that you can pack up and head to their place. If you are elderly or physically unable to leave, make sure your friends or family will come get you if they can’t reach you. Just leave a note though in case you’ve been picked up by a friend and your family comes looking for you. Once you decide that it’s better to ‘lose the battle to win the war’, shut off your water, drain all the pipes, lock up and leave. We came very close to having to shut off and drain our pipes here because keeping them from freezing was a battle we were about to lose. However, we still had plenty of means of surviving without having to leave (it was just a matter of saving the pipes and avoiding the water damage). If you aren’t prepared with food, water, warmth, other gear and supplies…staying in your home for too long could be a fatal mistake.
This isn’t meant to be a complete list and shouldn’t be taken as one. It’s just a collection of ideas that would have made things easier for people during a situation similar to what we just experienced. Do some research, pick up a few books on survival and buy some of the essential equipment and supplies. You don’t have to spend a tremendous amount of money on this stuff. Start with the basic essentials and add to it as you can afford to do so.
For some people, like us, it was just an inconvenience. For others, there was a lot of suffering and some people died. To be very blunt, and I know this will sound harsh, if you suffered during all this, you weren’t prepared. It will happen again eventually. Will you be prepared next time? Or are you going to suffer again?