Winter can be a tough season; right now, across the USA, millions of people are dealing with low temperatures and snow. Just imagine how much worse it would be if you suddenly lost power.
This isn’t an unrealistic scenario. The national power grid is a lot more fragile than most people realize, and the same weather that makes power so vital can easily take out chunks of the system. For an example, just look at what happened to large parts of the USA in early February 2010.
On February 2 that year a violent storm formed in Baja California and headed east across northern Mexico, then out into the Atlantic. Gaining even more strength over the ocean, it swung back towards the northeastern USA on February 6 and started dumping up to three feet of snow across the mid-Atlantic states. It was losing strength by the next day, but the region had only a brief respite; on February 9 another storm crashed in from the ocean, dropping another foot or two on states still trying to dig themselves out from under the last lot.
The effect on power lines was catastrophic, as snow froze on the cables until its weight brought them down. More than 200,000 people were left with no electricity in the Baltimore and Washington areas alone; in some places it took days to get the power back on.
Many people were totally unprepared for the outage, and with temperatures around freezing they looked desperately for ways to keep their homes warm. A father and daughter died from carbon monoxide poisoning in McKeesport, PA, after running a generator inside their home. Over two dozen others in the Pittsburgh area were also poisoned, but survived after treatment; all of them had been using generators or burning solid fuel to keep warm. Two more died in Bladensburg, MD, after running the engine of their trapped car to stay warm. Drifting snow blocked the tailpipe, and carbon monoxide escaping into the cabin killed them.
At least another dozen died in traffic accidents, usually when they lost control on snowy roads, and three succumbed to hypothermia outdoors – but what’s most alarming is that people were poisoned, sometimes fatally, in their own homes just trying to keep warm. Others gave up and checked into hotels that still had power; their homes had become uninhabitable when the power failed.
If you live in an area that can get severe winter weather – and that’s most of the USA – you need to be ready to cope without power. If you have a generator, make sure it’s set up in a protected outdoor location and ready to go. A wood stove will keep your house warm, but it needs to have a proper chimney. Trying to burn wood without one will steadily fill the atmosphere with lethal carbon monoxide. Have reliable lanterns ready so you can start using them the moment the lights go out.
The time to get ready for winter power outages is late fall, while there’s still time to think about your preparations and make sure everything works. The chances are your backup plans won’t be needed, but if they are it could be a life or death issue – and if you don’t think about it until the snow is already falling, it’s too late.
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