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Back in August of 2003, an overloaded aging and outdated power grid suffered a cascading failure plunging 55 million people into the dark for up to seven hours in the Northeast and Midwest U.S. and Ontario, Canada.

It was the nation's largest blackout ever.

Eight years later, almost to the month this year, a 12-hour September blackout turned off the lights in 7 million homes in the Southwest, forced two nuclear reactors offline and caused gridlock in San Diego where 3.5 million gallons of sewage spewed into the city's waterways, forcing the nation's eight largest city to close its beaches. Two month's later, the utility company still doesn't know what hit them.

A month later, a mid-fall snowstorm left 600,000 homes in the dark for more than a week in Connecticut and surrounding areas, due to too many vulnerable above-ground power lines and a woefully understaffed utility company.

It only seems like blackouts are getting smaller.

The U.S. power grid is weak, it is as fickle as the weather and you'd be foolish not to prepare for a blackout.

Just as sure as California's San Andreas earthquake fault will one day slip and release the Big One, a blackout is likely among the grid of stretched-thin power lines that crisscross the nation.

Endowed with federal authority to enforce reliability standards, the North America Electric Reliability Corporation's 2011 Risk Assessment of Reliability Performance is brimming with ominous prose, including:

• "Unexpectedly, almost one third of all sustained, automatic outages are dependent or common mode events. Though a number of protection systems are intended to trip three or more circuits, many events go beyond their design basis. In addition, a number of multiple outage events were initiated by protection system miss-operations. These events, which go beyond their design expectations and operating procedures, represent a tangible threat to reliability."   

• "On the average, units appear to require maintenance with increasing regularity to meet unit availability goals. In the last three years, the Equivalent Forced Outage Rate Demand (EFORD) increased, indicating a higher risk that a unit may not be available to meet generating requirements due to forced outages or de-ratings.

• "The three leading root causes for multiple unit forced trips are transmission outages, lack of fuel, and weather."

You get the picture. It's dark.

And, right now, winter blackouts are of particular concern.

In the summer, as hot days mount and the demand grows, regional utilities can prevent a forced blackout with pre-planned blackouts, rolling blackouts, brownouts and other diversionary efforts to prevent the grid from blowing a fuse.

On the other hand, a winter storm system can turn off the lights in an instant, making preparations all the more essential.

For complete, localized blackout preparations, contact your state or local office of emergency preparedness or emergency services.

Meanwhile, get started with these pointers.

• If someone in your household is on life-support systems, you should notify your power company when the support system is installed. 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 manufacturer's instructions to the letter. Never operate generators indoors on in any enclosed space. Never connect the generator to the home's electrical system without a code-complying transfer switch. Get advice from a licensed electrician.

• Consider an emergency back up battery system 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 goes out.

• Consider going off the grid. Solar power not only keeps going when the grid fails, it can give you a zero-cost energy bill and add value to your home worth more than the cost to install.

• 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. Leave town, meet friends or relatives in town where power is available, go to a local emergency shelter.

• Prepare a survival kit. Your emergency kit should always include enough food and water to last for three days for each person. Keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to prevent food spoilage. Consumer perishable foods first.

In addition to a food and water survival kits for each individual in your household, don't forget a flashlight, extra batteries, medical prescriptions, a first aid kit, hygiene supplies and other personal items.

A corded telephone will work without electricity. Cell phones can be handy if the network doesn't get overloaded. A satellite phone can take up that slack. Also consider a portable battery-operated AM-FM radio or small television to keep you informed about the blackout. Your vehicle's gas tank should always be at least 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 helps retain a large percentage of body warmth.

• Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible. Even where cold temperatures are less common, winterizing to keep out the heat or cold is a must. Caulking, plugging air leaks, insulating and other such tasks are crucial for all households to keep heating and cooling costs down.

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