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Who Turned Out the Lights?

NOTE: I’ll be writing about several different types of challenging situations that we run into in the United States. These posts aren’t intended to be scary or try to convince anyone that they shouldn’t live here. I love living here, and I strongly believe that being aware of and prepared for challenging situations makes it easier if you find yourself in any of those situations. With that in mind, I’ll try to provide helpful, practical suggestions for what you can do.

To be honest, this post was inspired by actual events at my home several days ago. We were having a fairly substantial rainstorm, which isn’t particularly unusual for this time of year in the Midwestern United States. What happened next isn’t particularly unusual, either: we lost power. In my neighborhood, we don’t lose power every time there is a storm, but I’ve come to expect that it will happen about once a year. In this particular instance, more than 90,000 people lost power. At my house, power was restored within 36 hours.

Between aging infrastructure, a growing population, and more frequent extreme weather, power outages have been steadily increasing in the past few decades. Most outages last only a few hours, but too frequently, they can last more than a day.

When the lights go out, what should you do? First, don’t panic. Next, as long as you have mobile internet access, check your power company’s website. You can check the status of your area, see what other areas have been affected, and get updates about when they think power will be restored.

Depending on what time of day you lose power, light might be your first concern. The flashlight function on your cell phone is probably the handiest option, but you don’t want to run the battery down unnecessarily. It’s a good idea to have flashlights and batteries stored where you can get to them easily. Candles are not a good choice here, since they can be a fire hazard.

It’s a good idea to unplug major electronics. When the power first comes back, sometimes it surges, which can damage electronic circuits. These circuits are not only in computers, but also in many newer appliances, like stoves, refrigerators, and even washers & dryers.

Also, keep the refrigerator and freezer closed. The less you open them, the better your chances are that the food in them will last. According to the Centers for Disease Control, refrigerated foods are good for up to four hours. Food in a full freezer will last up to 48 hours, but in a half-full freezer will only last 24 hours.

However, once the power comes back on, you might find that some of your food doesn’t look or smell right. The best rule in this case is, “When in doubt, throw it out.” Don’t take chances with food that might have spoiled.

Since you won’t be getting anything out of the refrigerator or using the stove, it’s important to have non-perishable food available that doesn’t need to be cooked. Canned food is the obvious choice, but make sure you have a manual can opener.

Bottled water is also crucial. In many situations when the power goes out, the water isn’t safe to drink, or might not be available at all. Store at least 1 gallon of water per person per day. Try to store a 2-week supply if possible. Remember that bottled water does have an expiration date.

We seldom lose power when the weather is perfect. Summer, with its intense storms, brings the most frequent power losses, but a snowstorm can also wreak havoc on the power grid. If you need to stay warm, conserve the heat you already have. Stay indoors, and put on extra layers of clothes. DO NOT use gas ovens, grills, or heaters to keep warm. These can cause a buildup of dangerous gases. If staying cool is the objective, remember to stay hydrated. Also, running water over your neck, wrists, and feet can help you cool off, especially if it isn’t humid. And remember, whether you’re trying to stay warm or cold, there might be other locations that you can go to. I’ve taken advantage of the light, heat/air conditioning, and internet at my local library more than once while my power was out.

Millions of Americans lost power in 2020 alone. It’s usually a minor inconvenience, but being prepared can help mitigate the situation and make it easier to deal with.


  • Bottled water (1 gallon per person per day)
  • Non-perishable food (enough for at least three days) and manual can opener, disposable plates and utensils
  • First Aid Kit
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Flashlights and extra batteries
  • Cell phone charger (solar is a good choice)
  • Hand crank radio

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