What You Need When the Lights Go Out

The big blackout in 1965 knocked out power across the northeast and spawned a bestselling book, “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” and a movie of the same name. But there were other citywide blackouts in July 1977, August 2003 and a partial dim out in July 2019. And of course there was Superstorm Sandy in October, 2012 that knocked out power in parts of lower Manhattan for a week. There’s nothing you can do to avoid a blackout but there are measures we can all take to be prepared in advance of the next one.

| 23 Jun 2023 | 11:12

One week into Summer, the three most important words are Sun, Fun, and. Blackout. Yes, the Great Blackout of 1965 happened in November, but Manhattan went fully dark in July 1977 and August 2003 and partially dim in July 2019. And of course there was the outlier of our time, Superstorm Sandy in October, 2012. But historically speaking, the odds are that the next one hits in the dog days of summer.

The trick to getting through the night when the lights flicker, the flat screen tv goes dark and power starts fading on your phone and computers is, as the Boy Scouts have been saying since 1907, “Be prepared.”.

First, to confirm what’s happening, keep a small battery powered transistor radio in your home. Old school for sure, but still the best way of finding what is going on when the electricity fails and your cell phone runs down. Of course, you always keep your cell phone charged except for the one or two times you forget. Solve that problem with a crank radio whose USB port can be used to power up the cell. The website Gear Junkie rates the best available right now; most can be found on Amazon. Caveat: A charged cell phone will work so long as the provider “service towers” do, but if as happened on 9/11, several million people are all trying to use their cells at the same time, the systems will be overwhelmed and calls won’t go through.

If you live in an older apartment building, a traditional corded land line telephone plugged into a jack on a traditional copper wire gets its power from the provider’s central office which may continue to function during a power outage. The more convenient cordless phones need their own source of electricity. If you have Verizon Fios or Spectrum voice, both offer battery backup units that can provide up to 24 hours of dial tone during power outages. Spectrum’s runs on a battery inside the modem; Verizon’s uses standard D cell batteries that you can easily replace to maintain your dial tone for extended periods of time.

Want light? Flashlights are safer and better than candles. The rule is one hand flash per person and one large search light for each room. And batteries. Lots of batteries. No, you don’t have to store them in the fridge or freezer. Energizer, the company that knows, says modern alkaline batteries “self-discharge” (translation: run down) at a rate of less than two percent a year when stored at normal room temperatures with moderate humidity. Once you turn your flashlight on, though, depending on brand, type and brightness, the batteries may run from one to 7 hours.

Thirsty? The Red Cross says to stock one gallon of water per person per day for drinking (a case of 24 16-ounce bottles= 384 ounces = 3 gallons). Add one gallon jug per person for light cooking. No, your electric stove won’t work but a gas one will, although you may have to–carefully–light the burner with a kitchen match.

Has the blackout lasted several hours? You must be hungry. Your three choices are refrigerator, freezer, and a large Styrofoam food cooler. A fridge with the door closed stays cold for up to four hours, protecting perishables such as dairy foods. A full freezer keeps food frozen longer, so generally pack yours tight with containers of frozen water, i.e., ice, to fill empty space as needed.

The cooler is for emergency provisions such as “Survival meals,” canned fruits, veggies, tuna, salmon, sardines, breakfast bars, juice boxes, nut butters, jellies, crackers, instant coffee or tea, and dry milk (if reconstituted, drink right away; do not store). If you don’t already have a food thermometer and a manual can opener, get them now. Finally, keep an envelope with $100 in small bills because ATMs and credit card machines won’t work without electricity.

When the lights come on, refreeze frozen food that still has ice crystals. Toss any chilled stuff with a temp above 40 F. Re-stock the food cooler and the bottled water. Add backup batteries as needed. Charge your cell phone every night.

Then relax. You’re ready.

And hurricane season’s Sandy storms are probably still two months away.