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How to handle a winter power outage

To prepare for a potential power outage, make sure you have backup power sources and an emergency plan in the event of a prolonged blackout, say experts.
Steven Senne
To prepare for a potential power outage, make sure you have backup power sources and an emergency plan in the event of a prolonged blackout, say experts.

A massive storm has already caused disruptions across the Midwest and is expected to hit other parts of the U.S. with severe thunderstorms, winds, heavy rain and potentially record-breaking cold throughout the weekend. Western states such as Oregon, Idaho and Nevada can expect heavy snow on Friday and Saturday, with possible snow headed South into the Mid-Atlantic early next week, according to the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center.

Big winter storms like this one can knock out electrical grids and cause homes to lose access to heat, appliances, the internet and even water. They can even be deadly if they last for several days — people can die from hypothermia in freezing conditions.

To prepare for a potential power outage, make sure you have backup power sources and an emergency plan in the event of a prolonged blackout. And be aware of potential dangers like carbon monoxide poisoning when using a generator, say experts.

Here are practical actions you can take to protect yourself and your family from the disruption of a power outage.

Know where you are in relation to essential services

If your power goes out, know where you can go to warm up. Find out how close you are to essential services like hospitals and rapid transit. They will often have "priority access" to power in the case of a major outage, says Ana Marie Jones, who works in emergency management, public safety and community resilience for InterPro, a management consulting company.

With prolonged outages, Alyssa Provencio, a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, recommends leaving your house and finding a warm place to stay, "like a friend's house" who hasn't lost power or "an emergency shelter nearby."

Create a plan for your medical essentials

If you rely on medical devices that run on electricity, like a life-saving ventilator or a CPAP machine, or take medication that requires refrigeration, you'll need a plan to keep those devices running and your medication cold during an outage, says Provencio.

Make sure you have a backup battery to run your medical devices. And keep your medications cold by leaving them in the refrigerator, opening it only when needed.

Stock up on water and nonperishable foods

To ensure you'll have food that's safe to eat, keep nonperishables like canned beans and power bars in your home. When it comes to water, store at least one gallon of water per person per day for several days.

According to Ready.gov, "the refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours. A full freezer will keep the temperature for about 48 hours." And if your fridge or freezer temperature reaches 40 degrees or higher, throw out the food.

Although it might be tempting to take advantage of the colder weather and store food outside, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends keeping items in the refrigerator during power outages "in any season." Storing food outdoors may expose it to animals and unsanitary conditions, and outside weather may vary.

Keep your phone charged and consider alternative power sources

Don't get used to having a nearly dead phone all the time. You won't be able to charge it during a power outage, so it's good to have as much battery left as possible, says Provencio.

"We over-rely on the idea that we're going to have access to power," she says. "How many times have you been in public and you've run your cell phone down to 3% and you're like, 'It's OK, I'm going to be able to plug my phone in at the next location I go to.' "

Jones recommends purchasing pocket-sizedbattery packs so you can charge devices like your phone when the power goes out.

If you own a gas generator as an alternative power source, only operate it outside, not in enclosed spaces like garages. The carbon monoxide emitted from its exhaust can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Get a power inverter for your car

Jones keeps a basic car battery inverter in her vehicle. It's an electronic device she can plug into her car's 12V socket that allows her to use her car as a power source for essential items like her computer and phone. The idea is for your car to be "a rolling power supply," she says.

With that in mind, Jones says she rarely has less than half a tank of gas in her car to ensure she can use her car in an emergency.

Use power strips with surge protection

When power gets restored after an outage, electricity can surge and damage your appliances, says Provencio. They may even cause an electrical fire if the appliances overheat.

To protect against these surges, plug your appliances into power strips with surge protectors. They ensure that when a "surge happens, if it does short [circuit], it happens to the surge protector and not the appliance itself," says Provencio. Look for an on-off switch to check if your power strips offer surge protection. You can also check the packaging when purchasing a new power strip.

If you don't have surge-protected power strips, unplug your appliances to prevent damage when the power goes out.

Attach a sticky note to your appliances with reset directions

Jones, a self-proclaimed "preparedness nerd," says whenever she gets a new appliance like a router or microwave, she attaches a sticky note to the back of the device with instructions on how to reset it. It'll make it easier to reset your appliances after an outage, "particularly when you're stressed out."

Gather games and comforting items to help pass the time

Create a personalized emotional care kit to help pass the time and keep your well-being up during an outage, says Jones — especially if you have kids. Mini puzzles, toys or a prayer book if you're religious can help make power outages "not a scary, terrible thing."

This story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Listen to Life Kit onApple Podcasts andSpotify, or sign up for ournewsletter.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Clare Marie Schneider
Clare Marie Schneider is an associate producer for Life Kit.