A winter storm with hurricane force winds swelled the surf and blasted icy rain and snow across the Pacific Northwest late last week, causing at least three deaths before heading inland.

In its wake, the storm left 1.5 million homes and businesses without power in Washington state and Oregon, underscoring the vulnerability of the nation's power supply and how you are at its mercy.

Blackouts, often the result of some natural calamity that puts extra generating demands or physical stress on the power grid, aren't going to go away any time soon. Just as households prepare for natural disasters, blackout preparation should be included in the effort.

The aging power grid in much of the nation is simply no match for winter storms, summer heat waves or other such events, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which met recently to coordinate energy policy and program development efforts to strengthen the grid and make it more efficient.

The U.S. Department of Energy says Southern California and the East Coast corridor between Boston and Washington D.C. are regions where new grid work is especially needed to alleviate problems. Other regions with reliability concerns include the recently blacked out Seattle-Portland corridor, Phoenix-Tucson, and areas in Wisconsin and Florida.

Unfortunately, constructing more transmission equipment can take years of regulatory hurdles and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) intervention.

Blackouts, unfortunately for now, are a way of life.

Prepare for them.

Summer blackouts due to heat waves often come with some warning. As hot days mount and the demand grows some regions even perform announced rolling blackouts and brownouts in selected areas to prevent a larger, major unscheduled blackout.

On the other hand when a winter or other storm turns off the lights, you may have heard the forecast, but no one tells you when the lights will quit.

Advance preparation for any potential disaster is always best. In the winter when it's cold outside and the chill makes survival more difficult, advance preparation is essential.

Below is not an exhaustive list of winter blackout preparedness and survival tips but they should help get you started and pointed in the right direction.

  • If someone in your household is on life-support systems, you should notify your power company when the support system is installed. Because all outages are not planned, life support backup is crucial.
  • If a liquid or natural gas fired generator is your back up for life support or other electrical needs, follow the manufacturers instructions to the letter. Never operate generators indoors including in a basement, garage or other enclosed space. Never connect the generator to the home's electrical system without a code-complying transfer switch. It's best to connect appliances, lighting and other equipment directly to the generator. Get advice in advance from a licensed electrician.
  • Likewise take care with using a wood burning fireplace, stove or similar appliance for warmth. Be sure the flue isn't blocked and there's enough ventilation to prevent a backdraft. Never use your gas stove, oven or unvented appliance to heat your home.
  • Also consider purchasing an emergency backup battery for your home computer, cell phone and other communication device that could come in handy in an emergency. Backup batteries, always connected to your computer and being charged by electricity, keep your computer or other small devices running for a half hour or more after the power shuts down. That could be just enough time to charge your cell phone, send emergency messages to family or friends via a wireless network or phone line, provided those services are still available, and to back up crucial data.
  • Some smart homeowners are preparing for long term conditions related to energy supply issues. Concerns about global warming, higher energy costs and other issues are causing many home owners to turn to solar and other renewable power sources. Solar power improves the value of your home, when compared to other nearby homes of similar size, age and configuration, not to mention the energy cost savings. As a bonus, when the holiday lights are still burning in your windows and the rest of the neighborhood goes dark, you'll be the envy of the neighborhood and perhaps able to provide a respite from the cold for your neighbors. Solar systems can generate electricity on all but the darkest of days and those installed with battery back up systems can store the free power until it's needed.
  • Have an escape plan. If you know a storm is coming far enough in advance and don't want to weather it at home, leave. You can leave town or make plans to meet friends or relatives in a part of town where the power is still on, if you plan well and move quickly. Severe weather typically comes with public access to local emergency shelters including hospitals, churches, social centers and other structures which may have generators or a better capacity to weather a storm. Know their locations.
  • Take care if you plan to be away during cold weather and leave before an emergency hits. Turn the water off and/or have the water system drained by a professional to keep pipes from freezing or bursting.
  • Whether you leave or stay have sufficient food and water on hand. You should have an emergency kit that includes enough food and water to last for three days for each person.
  • In addition to food and water survival kits for everyone, each member of the household should have a flashlight, extra batteries, medical prescriptions, hygiene supplies and other personal items. Pack in some luxuries and fun items -- candy, toys, handheld video games, travel-sized games, etc. You should also have a first aid kit, corded telephone that doesn't require electricity, a cell phone with back up battery (remember, batteries do run down and networks get overloaded during emergencies), satellite phone or other means of communication. A portable battery-operated AM-FM radio (know which station to tune in) or small television will keep you informed about the blackout. You vehicle's gas tank should always be half full and you should know how to crank your garage door if it's normally powered by electricity.
  • Stay warm. It's a lot easier to stay warm than to warm up from being chilled. Without power in a snow storm it's going to be at or below freezing. You need layers of clothing to insulate you from the cold air but not so much that you over heat. Head gear, gloves and warm socks helps retain a large percentage of body warmth lost through your body's extremities.
  • Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible, except to provide a flow of air for fire places and wood burning appliances. Winterizing to keep out the heat or cold -- or keep them in during opposite seasons -- is a must. Caulking, plugging air leaks, insulating and other such tasks are crucial for all households to keep heating and cooling costs down. You'll thank yourself for a well-insulated home should a black out roll your way during a cold winter storm.

    Add extra insulation to attics, basements and crawl spaces. Too much heat escaping through the attic causes snow and ice melt. Later, refreezing can cause more snow and ice to build up and collapse the roof. The attic should be five to ten degrees warmer than the outside air. Well-insulated basements and crawl spaces will also help protect pipes from freezing. You may also consider insulating unfinished rooms such as garages to keep pipes in the walls from freezing and to prevent colder air from entering the home.

    At some point, during or immediately after the black out and weather permitting, you'll have to maintain your property to prevent damage and injuries. Perform this work only when you can do so without putting your health at risk.

  • Clear cutters. Remove leaves, sticks and debris from gutters, so melting snow and ice can flow freely. Otherwise ice damming could occur leaving water unable to drain down the gutters but instead seep into the house. If temperatures drop you could also create a falling objects hazard. Gutter guards are a good investment to ward off debris that interferes with the flow of water.
  • Trim trees. Remove dead branches that ice, snow and wind can snap, causing damage to your home or car, and injury to people on your property.
  • Watch for snow accumulation on the downwind side of a higher-level roof, where blowing snow collects. Consult with a professional for safe snow removal that won't damage your roof.
  • Be sure steps, handrails and related devices are strong and secure. Broken stairs and handrails can become lethal when covered with snow and ice.
  • Check pipes. Look closely for cracks and leaks and have the pipes repaired immediately. Wrap exposed pipes with heating tape. Installing an emergency pressure release valve in your plumbing system can help protect against the increased pressure caused by freezing water and it can help prevent your pipes from bursting.
  • Learn how to shut the water off and know where your pipes are located. If your pipes freeze, the sooner you can shut off the water or direct your plumber to the problem, the better chance you have to prevent pipes from bursting.
  • Hire a licensed contractor to look for structural damage. If damage is discovered, you can have it repaired immediately rather than waiting for a more severe problem to occur. Seek out ways to prevent water damage resulting from snow-related flooding. Plastic coatings for internal basement walls, sump pumps and other methods can prevent flood damage to your home and belongings.
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