I’m sad to report that blackout baby booms are an urban legend. I can’t say how urban people actually manage when the power fails. But out here at the fringes of electrical service areas? We make do. Here’s how.
Outages are pretty common in rural areas like mine, where there are lots of trees perfectly positioned to fall onto wires. Repair crews often travel farther to reach rural areas impacted by the loss of power. We never know if it will be back on in a minute or a few hours or longer. So it’s good to be prepared – even on those bluebird sky days. You never know when your new neighbor using his new chainsaw might drop a tree on a wire or a motorist dodging deer may take out a pole with a transformer. Preparations can include:
- Know who to call. My power company is a starred contact in my phone. Other people use apps to report outages. In any case, the sooner you report an outage the sooner repair orders are issued. Don’t assume others have reported it, especially when you’re at the end of the road. And those vacation rentals in secluded rural locations? There’s a reason why the owners keep flashlights by the guest books with instructions on what to do in situations like this. But don’t call 911 unless something’s on fire or there’s some other true emergency. People actually do that, and it complicates life for rural 911 dispatchers who are already plenty busy.
- Plan for surges. Having to reset clocks after the power flickers is annoying (darn those chewing red squirrels). But actual surges can be expensive. Prevent damage to electronic equipment with surge protectors.
- Power banks. Small portable power banks can help keep your cell phone working. You’ll need it.
- Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. When the lights are out and you’re using alternate sources for heat or power, don’t be guessing when you last changed batteries or if your alarms are more than 10 years old. And remember, if you had Covid your sense of smell may not pick up smoke, and carbon monoxide is odorless.
- Medical devices. If you or someone in your family relies on equipment that requires electricity, don’t delay: Make a plan now for how to manage an extended, widespread outage. Despite our best efforts, in 2019 there was little our volunteer fire department could do for residents who relied on home oxygen concentrators once their small portable tanks ran out. Some had to find hotels out of the impacted area to stay in until power was restored.
- Sign up for emergency alerts. My rural county’s website includes a link to sign up for emergency alerts, which I wrote about after the derecho hit our community. Also, be sure that “Wireless Emergency Alerts” in Settings is enabled on your smartphone.
When a weather alert or a bad knee warns of conditions likely to disrupt the power supply, here’s what we do.
- Draw water. Rural properties served by private wells generally rely on electricity to power the pump that moves water from underground to a spigot. We use that water for everything from cooking and washing dishes to filling the dog’s bowl, watering plants, personal hygiene, and flushing waste from the stool into our septic system. In the short term we delay, defer and resort to skills learned as feral children. But for an extended outage we need a supply of water close at hand. First, drinking water: I fill all of our reusable water bottles, several half-gallon and gallon glass jars, and my soup kettle. Then I fill a couple small buckets in the bathroom just for flushing. We don’t have a tub or I would fill that. Then I fill several 5-gallon buckets and the laundry tub in the basement. I used to fill the washing machine and stop the cycle before the tub drained, but my new machine is too smart to allow that.
- Menu planning. Once the power goes out we avoid opening the freezers and fridge. So before that happens I select frozen items for several stovetop meals (our gas range works without electricity) and put them to thaw in the refrigerator. When it’s time to fix a meal, I can be in and out of the fridge fast.
- Stash ice. A full freezer stays colder longer, so it’s wise to fill empty spaces with ice – preferably block ice or frozen jugs of water. If the forecast is grim (extended outage + heat + humidity) and especially if it’s for a particularly dangerous situation (PDS) storm, I might buy bags of ice to stash in our coolers along with bottled water and Gatorade. Storm recovery is thirsty work.
- Heed advisories. When local meteorologists advise you to secure outdoor furniture and other items, do it.
- Plug and unplug. We want our cell phones, fire department radios and pagers, portable battery packs and other devices fully charged going into what might be an extended outage. We also unplug things we can’t afford to replace.
- Fill ‘er up. We top off the tanks in our vehicles, and make sure we have fuel and oil for the chainsaw and portable generator. I don’t know how far we would have to go to find a station with a generator that could pump gas during a widespread outage, and would rather not find out. I also fill our hurricane lamps and wash the glass chimneys if they’re dusty (they always are). It may be safer to use battery-powered lanterns, but we have two lamps that burn paraffin oil instead of batteries. One was my grandmother’s and honestly, it provides comfort as well as light.
- Fill a thermos. The assistant chief on our fire department taught me this one: If there’s a chance that weather will knock out the power, I fill a thermos for me (tea), one for Bill (decaf), and the big old Stanley with strong coffee to pour for others. They will be grateful.
- Fill a basket. When severe weather is expected, I fill a basket with things we might need if we end up sheltering in the basement in the dark. That includes cell phones, chargers and power banks, flashlights, wallets, medications, wet wipes, water bottles, dog treats, granola bars, reading glasses, bank books, contact information for insurance carriers, keys for our vehicles, our fire department radios and pagers, and ball caps with battery-powered lights clipped to the visors.
- Squared away. I have turned into my mother, who wouldn’t let us touch the plumbing when there was lightning. If there’s even a chance we’ll be without power for a while I want dishes done and the kitchen and bathroom clean. If there’s time, I do laundry, too, because stinky clothes pile up fast when you’re working to clean up storm damage in hot weather. I may make time before a storm for a quick shower and a short meditation on the porcelain throne. One time my husband comes home from a house fire where a lightning strike blew up the toilet. Apparently my mother was right about the plumbing.
Once It’s Out
For the first few hours of an outage, folks mostly just guard the refrigerator (“don’t open that”) and remind anyone who goes into the bathroom to not flush unless necessary. If the rain is coming down straight instead of sideways we sit on the porch and appreciate a cool breeze and tell stories – like the one about the outage where Dad brought baby pigs into the bathtub to keep them warm (Mom was not happy). If we can’t relax outside, kids build blanket forts in the living room. Books and board games come out. We used to have a neighbor who always showed up when the power was out to play Scrabble by the light of our hurricane lamps. Rural people also:
- Check on neighbors. Sometimes that means scrolling through Facebook status posts about who lost power when and how long before the power company estimates they can restore it. We get texts or IMs from younger neighbors who ask how we’re doing, and we call others to make sure all is well. Friends and family from away want to know how we fared. Neighbors who aren’t at home may reach out for updates.
- Conserve. It’s tempting to use up battery on social media. If it seems likely that an outage may be a long one, though, you can set up an auto-reply for email and a voicemail message that says you’re okay but unable to respond. Close all unused apps and go into airplane mode to conserve batteries for when you need to to check the forecast or do essential activities.
- Stay put. If possible, stay home. Seriously. Manpower is generally scarce anyway on rural volunteer fire departments. Gawkers make their job more difficult and more dangerous. And for heaven’s sake if you must be on the road to pick up your kids or check on elders, don’t whip out your cell phone to snap pictures as you drive past the burning transformer or other storm damage.
- Count your blessings. For most of us, a temporary loss of power is just an inconvenience. This is a great time to practice gratitude for all we have and for disasters that skipped over us. Look for a rainbow and be thankful you’re not lambing without heat or needing to water livestock without electricity. If an outage is extended, you’ll be pretty busy dealing with it before long. So you might also offer up a few prayers for the safety of those less fortunate and for the utility and public safety workers who’ve left their own homes and families to deal with the situation.
A few hours into an outage we start to get a sense of how extensive it is, how long it may last, and how resourceful we’re going to have to be.
- Generators. We know a few people with standby generators that can power their whole house. But most of our neighbors who own generators only have portable ones that can reasonably power one or two appliances. And generally they don’t start those until the power has been out for a while (unless someone has been opening the fridge or the freezer). Bill and I never had a generator until recently. We always figured if necessary I could just start canning all the meat in the freezer before it spoiled. But we need to replace the 40-year-old freezer in the basement with one that will go upstairs (now that we’re older). That location would be more accessible to a portable generator running outside. As I get older I don’t think I could pressure can that much without running water. And we sure can’t afford to lose the contents of a freezer. I hope we never need to run this generator. Once it has been run, we’ll need to run it often enough and long enough to burn off moisture that can condense in storage (my dad gave me a schedule for running his when they moved to assisted living).
- Plan B. Even during an extended outage, life goes on around you. My parents were without power once for a week while the power company replaced poles snapped off in an ice storm. They carried buckets of water up from the creek, slept by the fireplace, and managed just fine – until a neighbor died. When Dad was asked to be a pallbearer, they decided they both really needed a thorough wash before the funeral. They finally drove to the nearest city and found a YMCA where they could shower.
Bill and I live farther from a YWCA. But we still have the solar shower we bought when we were building our house. That was a long three weeks without power. The solar shower came in handy not only for bathing but also for doing dishes.
When I worked the Census In 2020, I saw a surprising number of houses (vacation homes, presumably) without storm doors. I can’t imagine building a place where you can’t catch a cool breeze at night when the power is out and air conditioning isn’t available. Or a place without at least a small wood stove for heat in a winter outage. Because where we live, it’s not a question of if but when we’ll need to be ready for the power to be out.
Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer FIre Department. She says, “Those linemen always appreciate a bottle of Gatorade if you offer.”