Modern societal life has a lot going for it, and not just when it comes to conveniences and niceties. The utilities that make our modern existence possible at all- water and sewage service, internet, electricity and others- are positively marvels of engineering and human ingenuity on a grand scale.
Working together, those services provide clean, fresh water while ferrying away waste, and all manner of technological wizardry hum along, many times silent and unseen, running everything from our cell networks and internet to crucial medical implements and refrigeration. It is no stretch to say that a considerable fraction of our long lifespans in the U.S. is owed directly to these “amenities.”
But what most do not know, much less spare a second’s thought to, is just how brittle and fragile our infrastructures supporting these utilities are, and among all of them, the arguably most important one is also the most vulnerable: the electric grid.
Without electricity, all of the other services will be adversely affected or even halted, setting off a cascading chain of events that will turn society upside down in no time. It is said that the threads that tie us together are tenuous, but most will never know how thin, and how important, those thin copper wires really are.
America’s power grid is definitely aging, even antiquated in some areas, and lags far behind other developed nations when it comes to downtime. The average time spent without power in the U.S. for an average citizen is about 214 minutes due to blackout. Compared to other sophisticated nations like Japan, whose citizens only average 4 minutes of downtime. Even from minor or mundane causes, this costs the U.S. over $150 billion dollars a year.
America loses power more often than any other developed nation, and our grids are commensurately more vulnerable to power loss from incidental damage or disasters. This means U.S. citizens must be even more prepared to deal with a total loss of power.
In today’s piece, I’ll be delivering a guide on dealing with an event that most of us have had a taste of, but mercifully never had to endure for any length of time. A blackout, a long-term loss of power.
Are Blackouts Really a Problem?
A better question is, how long do the lights have to stay off before it turns into a real problem? A loss of power lasting a few minutes, even a couple of hours, is an inconvenience in almost all situations. A blackout lasting weeks or months will shake a community or, worse, region to its foundations, and are major events.
Do a little thinking on the subject: just how much of modern society depends on electricity? If you came up with “pretty much all of it,” pat yourself on the back, gold star for you! Everything from our communications networks (both cellular and traditional), water or sewage treatment facilities, transit systems of all kinds, and most administrative record keeping and other civic operations are completely, hopelessly dependent on electricity to function at all. Many modern retailers are effectively closed when they lose power, being unwilling or unable to do business “the old fashioned way.”
Go a little deeper and you’ll see that every kind of shop, store and business depends on electricity: groceries, banks and ATMs, gas stations, department stores, service providers and many others. Even worse, police forces, fire departments and hospitals all depend on our power grid to perform their work. No juice, no service, or at least response times and efficiency will be greatly degraded.
Refrigeration of food, medicines and come chemicals is essential for safety. Some folks with existing health conditions or injuries are completely dependent on certain electrical devices for treatment. The list goes on and on.
As you can probably tell, a blackout has far more serious implications than the lights simply not coming on. Loss of power for any long period of time “starts the clock” on a Really Bad Day, one where mass spoilage, contamination, out of control body temps and loss of life become all too probable. This is in otherwise kind, peaceful times, mind you.
A blackout occurring in concurrently with or because of some other disastrous happening will be even worse, hampering response and relief efforts, and piling even more stress onto stressful situations. There are recorded instances where summer blackouts resulting in loss of air conditioning during historic heatwaves proved the catalyst for outbreaks of unrest, looting and violence.
Worse yet, the power fluctuations that blackouts cause (or cause blackouts) can be severely damaging to power grid components and all manner of unprotected electronic systems. This means that damage stemming from the event can delay restoration of power, other essential services or even destroy your computers and other online devices.
Causes of Blackouts
Our electrical grid in the U.S. is nothing short of a wonder. A bewildering array of power stations, installations, subsystems, uncounted thousands of miles of line and cable, and the ceaseless work and monitoring by specialized and trained personnel are just a few elements in the truly labyrinthine assemblage responsible for your monitor coming on, and your smartphone charging while you sleep or work.
Blackouts may occur from one or several root causes, technical stuff like power station faults, transmission (power) line damage, substation issues or simple overloading. Now, the cause for any of those issues could be nearly anything, with human error, mishap, breakage from wear, weather or accident, or even sabotage.
Depending on the nature of the failure, the number of affected people, or structures, however you want to calculate it could be a few streets or blocks to entire cities, even regions. In a few truly apocalyptic scenarios stemming from equally dreadful causes, perhaps even the entire country could be plunged into the long dark.
Depending on the circumstances and the severity of the issue, it may take minutes, hours, days, weeks or longer to get the juice flowing again. A little glitch in a control system or minor human error may interrupt your regularly scheduled web surfing for a few minutes, where a broken or shorted power line due a storm-felled branch or tree could take several hours to correct, leaving you with miserly use of your smart phone.
A major outage will last days, even weeks, and you will effectively be in real survival mode by then. Mercifully, in the last century any blackouts, even huge ones affecting millions of people rarely last more than several hours, but that is no reason to ignore blackout-specific prepping strategies. As I mentioned above, it is a virtually certainty that a long-term blackout will follow right alongside some other major disaster or crisis.
Preparing for and Surviving a Blackout
Preparing for the innocuous effects of a blackout mean you’ll need to take a couple of simple steps. First, take an inventory of all your essential items and resources that are dependent on electricity. No, I don’t mean internet service so you can binge watch Forgotten Weapons on YouTube, I mean essential supplies like food, medicine that is refrigerated, and any must-have critical medical equipment and the like.
Next you’ll create a blackout checklist with your list of procedures to complete when the power goes out. You’ll need to do things like prep your perishable supplies for longest store time and do things like unplugging all electronics from receptacles on the affected grid so you do not risk burning them up when the power comes back on and surges.
Last, you’ll take stock of and perform routine preventative maintenance on any systems you have to keep the lights on at your house, should you have them. Things like battery backup power supplies, generators and the like.
As with any major crisis, there are three phases to risk mitigation. The single most important steps to mitigating the worst effects of a blackout are accomplished in the preparatory phase.
- Identify items that absolutely depend on electricity and formulate countermeasures for continuation after loss of power, i.e. medical devices, refrigerated meds, etc.
- Contact you doctor or pharmacist for advice on preserving refrigerated medication, and tips for operation of vital medical devices on reserve or backup power supplies.
- Install carbon monoxide detectors with battery backup capability.
- Install thermometers in refrigerators and freezers. Remove as much wasted space as possible to help keep compartments colder when power is lost.
- Make it a point to keep all devices charged as often as possible and all vehicle fueled to at least half capacity.
- Assemble your blackout supply kit. Ensure you place heavy emphasis on supplemental, preferably flameless, lighting.
- Pre-select locations you may shelter at/in for better protection against extreme cold or heat. This could be public locations with backup or independent power supply, or simply a shelter or structure that makes it easier to maintain your body temperature.
- As soon as you can, disconnect all electrical appliances and electronics. Severe damage or destruction may occur if there is a power spike when service is restored.
- Do not use any combustible source of heat or flame indoors, e.g. grills, camp stoves, generators etc. This also includes your gas stovetop when used in an attempt to heat your home. Carbon monoxide poisoning is an insidious killer.
- Keep fridge/freezer doors closed tightly at all times. Note your average refrigerator compartment will keep food at a safe temperature for about four hours. An average freezer will do the same for 48 hours. The less wasted air space there is in either the longer the temp will remain low.
- Check on friends and neighbors, especially the old, infirm and very young, who are all far more vulnerable to exposure.
- If you are unable to maintain your body temperature at a nominal level thanks to the blackout, you’ll need to head to your preselected secondary shelter.
- Consume refrigerated foods first; monitor temperature in fridge/freezer. When cold foods have been above 40° F for a couple hours, consider it no good.
- Dispose of any food that is no longer safe to consume. Take no chances! Spoiled food can waylay you with one of several nasty bugs. If food looks, smells or feels weird, get rid of it!
- Tune in to local or regional news and emergency management notification systems if possible. Listen for updates and instructions regarding restoration of power, any infrastructure damage and water/sewage advisories.
Generators and Battery Backup Systems
Of obvious interest to preppers for any disaster that knocks out power are items like diesel or gasoline generators and deep-cycle backup battery systems. Either solution will require a significant investment of money, as well as adapting your house to allow them to hookup and power your appliances and so forth.
Considering your energy budget will vary at different times of year and depending on the appliances you plan on running, you will need to research output and other performance metrics to make a good choice for either system. Also be aware that both are high-value targets for theft and require dedicated and ongoing maintenance to keep them standby ready.
Know exactly what you are getting into before you pull the trigger on one of these personal power supplies so you don’t wind up with wasted coin and time.
Secondary Effects of Blackouts
As mentioned above, a blackout always increases the chances of civil unrest, looting, rioting and other mayhem. There is just something about the lights going out that touches a dark kernel in some folks’ souls. Add to this the probability that emergency services will either be stretched thin or their effectiveness hampered, and you see people run wild during blackouts regularly.
This is no guarantee, of course, but it is an occurrence you must take seriously. Plan as if no one will be coming to save you, heal you or put out the fires. The watchword for all preparedness is that you are always your own first responder. You should have a means to defend yourself, deal with injuries and outbreaks of fires.
The worst case scenario is that the power won’t come back on in a major metro area for weeks or longer. In this case you can expect things to get very sporty as loss of civic services and greatly strained police and EMS response leads to long-lasting outbreaks of flagrant criminality. Depending on where you live and your accessibility, fending off rampaging bandits may be necessary.
Hope is never a plan; you need to have a good one for coping with societal meltdown when the lights go off.
Stay or Go?
A common question raised when making ready to deal with a blackout is “bug out or stay in place?” Depending on the circumstances you may have options, so let’s look at them below.
If the blackout is the primary event, and you have plenty of supplies and are not too worried about temperature concerns, you may very well want to stay. You home and hometown confer significant advantages, and so long as you have contingency plans and supplies for food, water, sanitation and lighting you may be “camping” in the living room for a while and that’s all.
If the blackout is subordinate to the event that caused it i.e. your town has sustained major damage from a natural or man-made disaster, or you live in a densely populated area (or near a rough part of town) you may decide to bug out. This may be easier or harder than you expect depending on the actions of other citizens. You can assume things like traffic lights and the like will be malfunctioning or non-operational, and this will lead to traffic slowdown in ideal times.
If an entire city has no working traffic lights, and a bunch of people all trying to leave town, you can imagine the gridlock I am sure. Your best bet for scooting out of town may be to leave via small back or rural roads, or to “leave” by heading somewhere else in town that is simply a more favorable place to wait it out, perhaps a friend, relative or maybe even your workplace.
Blackout Emergency Supply Kit
The following kit is based off of FEMA’s recommendations with a few select additions from your author, here. As you are no doubt used to seeing, so much of the things on any good, core prepper kit are useful in nearly any kind of emergency situation. In the case of a blackout, there is not much else to add by way of specialty equipment except to say you should have a ton of light sources and batteries. But then again, most of you will already have those as a matter of course.
Provisions and Rations
- Food – Shoot for 1,600 calories for an adult is more than adequate for low activity survival. 2,000+ is better if you are anticipating strenuous activity during or after the event.
- Foil packed or canned food – Easy to store and long lasting. Make sure you have a way to boil water for dehydrated options!
- Snacks – for quick bites and energy.
- Baby Food/Pet Food Don’t forget the smaller members of the family!
- Utensils/Plates/Mess Kit – If sheltering in place, or mess kit for a planned bug-out.
- Can Opener – Manual, not electric or battery powered.
- Water – 1 gallon per person per day is the minimum for washing and sanitation. More will be needed in hot climates, if you get sick, or if you get shot etc.
- Hygiene Items – The usual suspects: Deodorant, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, any feminine products. Also keep a goodly supply of baby wipes for getting clean, as this will also ease water consumption.
- Clothes, daily wear and protective – the usual clothes you wear, plus add in some protective gear like gloves and boots.
- Blankets and Sleeping Bags – You may be sheltering in a heatless house in the dead of winter. The ability to make a “microclimate” inside is invaluable for keeping warm while eliminating the need to burn combustibles.
- NOAA Emergency Radio – Battery powered is fine but crank operated is also good. Quality models also have a built in flashlight and USB charger.
- Flashlights and spare batteries – Count on no power for days or even weeks. You’ll be using flashlights, lanterns and headlamps constantly. Don’t forget to test your lights and rotate your batteries periodically.
- Large Tarps and Cordage – For making shelter, blocking light from escaping your windows or as a ground cover.
- Cell Phone – Includes a charged spare battery, backup power cell or solar array. Keep it charged and layoff the games! Some cellular towers and networks have backup power, but you can count on service being spotty or dropping entirely. Still, texting or email may be possible even when calls are not.
- First Aid Kit – Includes:
- Boo Boo Kit – For smaller injuries
- Trauma Kit – For serious injuries. You must have the skills to make use of trauma supplies, unless you are counting on a good Samaritan to know what they are doing. Remember, hope is not a plan.
- Prescription Meds – All necessary prescriptions, glasses or contact lenses. Have at least a 1 week supply of meds. Talk to your doctor about safe storage and preservation of meds that must be kept cold, like insulin.
- Documents –All your vital papers, ID’s deeds, etc. Keep these in paper form sealed in page protectors or securely encrypted on a flashdrive. There is no telling how badly mangled electronic databases may be after a major event, so these will prove vital.
- Toolkit – Any tools you may need to fortify your dwelling, create a small shelter or extricate yourself or others from a sticky situation.
- Cash and Cards – Cash money is always good in a blackout unless the situation is so cataclysmic you are looking at national or global destruction. You can forget about credit and debit cards, obviously.
- Books, games, playing cards – Assuming you are not bugging out or in a desperate fight for your life, a few non-electric diversions and games will help keep spirits up and reduce stress. Especially in a long blackout where there is not much else to do these will be important.
Past Major Blackouts in the U.S.
Below you will find a sampling of major power outage events that have occurred in the United States. Many of them were serious events that were the talk of national media when they occurred. Considering some of them resulted in little more than bad attitudes and lost productivity, they may not underscore the seriousness of a blackout.
Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of confidence: a blackout affecting millions of people sounds seriously bad, but then not so bad when you learn that it only took several hours to get 95% of those people lit up again. But consider this: exactly how fragile is a system that can fail and plunge millions of people into the dark with no warning? How much worse would it be if major damage or sabotage caused a blackout of similar size in the same geographic area, only this time it would last 2 weeks? A month? Three months? Longer..?
All of these events had serious consequences, and are portents of how bad things can get with one mishap.
Northeast Blackout, 1965, People Affected: 30+ Mil., Duration: 13 Hours
This monster blackout affected eight states in New England. The cause was good, plain old human error, specifically a botched setting on a single protection mechanism that resulted in a classic domino-effect overload of neighboring systems in all directions. The final tally? After 5 minutes, about 30 million folks without power to heat or cook in the middle of an especially frigid November.
Tons of people were trapped in skyscrapers and underground transit. Looting broke out in short order and police forces were working overtime to contain it. The good news is that after this glaring vulnerability was analyzed, new procedures and monitoring protocols were engaged. Whew . Glad that will never happen again…
New York, New York Blackout, 1977, People Affected: Unk., Duration: Appx. 24 hours
Multiple lightning strikes caused the blackout that sent nearly the entire Big Apple into the gloom. What set this immense blackout apart from predecessors was the awful timing: it occurred during a period of local and national economic downturn which already had tensions rising and tempers flaring in the city.
When the lights went out, the balloon went up. Almost immediately widespread looting and rioting broke out. 1,000’s of stores were smashed into and looted, with looters often being mugged by other crooks on the way out. The streets were in bedlam. Worse yet, mass arson was underway. Over 1,000 fires and 14 multiple-alarm fire callouts were responded to.
Police activity was running at a fever pitch, with mass incarceration happening round the clock. In fact, there were so many arrests occurring that prisoners had to be crammed as if livestock into any available lockable space available to police. Late the following day, when the lights finally came back on, the modern day tally of the damages would surmount $1.2 billion.
If there is ever an example we can point to of how a blackout may set off the worst urges in the hearts of mankind, it is this one.
West Coast Blackout, 1982, People Affected: 5+ Million, Duration: 4 days
Strong winds bowled one transmission tower into another tower near Tracy, CA, which resulted in a cascade of other towers failing. This turned into an even bigger snafu when communications failures at the energy company resulted in response teams and workers missing out on vital instructions. The follow-on failures left people as far away as Las Vegas, NV in the dark, desert night with no power.
Another good example of how seemingly small disruptions can snowball into statewide blackouts in short order. It is very easy to blame incompetence, neglect or lack of planning on the resultant slow response, but as they say, shit happens, and Mr. Murphy always gets his vote on the outcome.
Take note again just how far away neighboring Las Vegas was, and was still affected. You may be shocked (sorry) to learn just how interconnected and mutually dependent our power networks are on one another, especially in this day of states buying and selling power to their neighbors.
Northeast Blackout, 2003, People Affected: 55 Mil., Duration: 2 days to 2 weeks.
This most widespread blackout in North America affected a half of New England and a huge swath of Ontario in Canada in mid August. The cause was an innocuous controlling system software bug that wound up silencing an alarm meant to alert technicians to a potential fault from contact on the lines. Under any other circumstances, a very mild problem that would be soon remedied. Thanks to our software glitch: the 2nd most widespread blackout in the history of the world, totaling over 100 power plants offline.
Essential services were greatly reduced or non-existent depending on the affected area. Some areas lost water service, and in some major cities sewage was released into waterways. Air travel, train travel and international markets were all severely affected. A few lucky areas saw power restored a half day later, but others sat in the dark, boiling water, with no water pressure and no light for two weeks.
Ultimately, this event brought to light the seriously dilapidated nature of the regional power grid, as a software bug alone should not have accounted for this massive a failure. Many other poorly maintained and designed systems had to fail successively for something like this to occur. Are you seeing a pattern, reader?
Blackouts on a small scale are relatively common, and are treated more as inconveniences or aggravations than serious disasters. Don’t be fooled: major blackouts are every bit the emergencies that other, louder and more destructive events are. No matter the cause, be it weather, negligence or human folly, you need a plan for dealing with the long dark of an extended blackout.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.