I have more experience with living without power than I would prefer, between Hurricane Ike (9 days) and post-house fire (27 days). So with Hurricane Florence barreling down on the Carolinas as a Category 4 storm, here’s some advice for folks who may be without electricity and/or hot water for days, if not weeks. Some of these tips were originally written and shared by meteorologist Denis Phillips on Facebook. I’ve modified it based on my own experience of over a month of post-disaster involuntary Amish-style living in suburban America. (Note that this post may contain affiliate links. Shopping via my links will not cost you any extra (it sometimes saves you money) and the commissions help me buy catnip for the fur babies.)
Lights & Communication
Charge every electrical device that provides light and/or a connection to the outside world/first responders. Also charge cordless power tools and lawn equipment — you may need them for cleanup after the disaster. Charge laptops, tablets, cameras, external battery backups, video cameras, your computer’s Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS), camping lanterns, and old cell phones. Old cell phones can still be used for dialing 911 (but it’s not realistic to expect first responders to show up, especially if you’ve been told to evacuate.)
Buy a generator if you can find one.
(It may already be too late.) Be sure you understand what your generator’s capacity is. Some are not large enough to run a refrigerator, for example. Fill up at least a couple 5-gallon gas cans, more if you can. You can always use it in your car after the storm. Avoid ethanol gas if you can, use the real stuff. It’s better for small engines. You’ll also need a heavy-duty 50′ or 100′ extension cord and possibly a chain and padlock to make sure your generator doesn’t wander off. NEVER run a generator in a closed space or indoors. You will go deaf and worse, suffocate yourself.
This is basically a rechargeable car battery in a plastic housing, typically meant to be kept in your car. They often come with an air compressor and jumper cables, a 110-volt outlet, and hopefully a couple of USB charger ports. They also make models like this one
for use on construction sites. We used our generator to charge our power source during the day, and relied on battery power at night.
Solar yard lights are your friend.
Run out to the dollar store or hardware store and buy as many of those solar yard lights as you can find, the brighter the better.
They need to go outside ASAP to charge. Bring them inside before the storm. The morning after the storm, line your driveway entrance/curb cut with them so you can find it in the dark. (You won’t be able to see house numbers, and no one else in the neighborhood will have thought of this.) Also place them near your front door and around your front steps/entrance so you can find them. If you have areas in your yard that are dangerous in a blackout (like a pond or steep drop-off) place a line of lights along it as well. Buy extras to use inside. We set about a dozen of them in a bucket, charged them outside every day, and brought them inside at dusk.
Get cranking on a radio & lights.
Assume phone service, cable Internet and Wifi will go out along with the power, and plan accordingly.
You may still be able to send and receive texts. You may also be able to use your cell phone as a walkie-talkie using an app like Zello
. Download and install it, and practice using it now, while you still have power. Make sure all your friends and family have the same app. If you live near a hospital, they are often on their own power circuit. There were a few fast-food places near our Level 1 trauma center that still had power after Ike. I was able to get hot food and charge my cell phone/laptop a couple of times, and use their Wifi. You may not be so lucky.
You can only survive 3 days without water. Plan for a MINIMUM of 1 gallon of clean water per person per day. Realistically, that’s an uncomfortable bare minimum. Five gallons a day will allow you to take a very brief sponge bath every day or so.
According to Ready.gov, “Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper – When diluted nine parts water to one part bleach, bleach can be used as a disinfectant. Or in an emergency, you can use it to treat water by using 16 drops of regular household liquid bleach per gallon of water. Do not use scented, color safe or bleaches with added cleaners.”
For drinking, buy much more bottled water than you think you will need, or invest in a survivalist-level Berkeley water filter if you can afford it. You can pour your used “grey water” into it if nothing else is available, and it will come out safe and odor-free. A pitcher-style water filter is good enough for filtering stored, bleach-treated water (see below).
After you have removed all the trash from the house, wash all trash cans and lids, big and small, indoors and out, with hot, soapy water and bleach. Rinse well and fill with water for flushing toilets. Line lawn & leaf outdoor trash cans with trash bags, move to the garage, and fill with water. Cover with lids or another trash bag. Add bleach to sterilize as you use it.
Make sure you have clean buckets for transporting water from your trash cans to the toilets and sinks. Grocery store deli and bakery departments and fast food outlets often give away food-safe buckets if you ask for them.
Fill every tub and sink with water. Remember, your water heater tank will also be full of water, even if you can’t heat it. If you don’t have water pressure after the storm, you can drain your water heater using the tap at the bottom.
Wash, rinse and fill old empty water bottles and other containers with water and keep near sinks for washing hands. (Cat litter jugs are GREAT for this. To this day, I have dozens of them filled with water under the stairs in the basement.)
While you still have power, fill empty spaces in your freezer with bottled water and water-filled food storage containers. Once frozen, they will help keep food cold longer and serve as a back up water supply.
This is something you just don’t think about until you’re living it. It’s FAR easier to deal with a disaster with a clean body, clean clothes, clean sheets and a clean house. You may not have A/C or hot water, and you and your house will both start to smell after a couple of days.
Clean out the fridge and freezer.
Take everything out of the fridge and freezer and quickly deep-clean the refrigerator with hot, soapy water and spray bleach. Defrost the freezer if you have time. The longer you go without power, the more the inside of a dirty fridge or freezer will stink. In just a few days at room temperature, a dirty fridge will smell like rotten garbage. And you will never get that smell out. While everything is out of the fridge, you may want to take time to pitch or cook food that is nearing its “go home to Jesus” date. Take a photo of everything you have in the fridge and freezer for insurance.
Return everything you’re keeping to the fridge and freezer. While you still have power, fill in the gaps in the fridge with bottled water, pop or some other “placeholder” that won’t spoil at room temperature. After the power goes out, strictly limit the number of times you open the refrigerator and freezer doors. If it’s full, a refrigerator can stay cold for a day or two, a freezer for a day or so longer if you keep the doors shut. If a perishable refrigerated item reaches 40 degrees F and stays there for longer than 2 hours, it must be cooked or thrown away for safety’s sake.
Before the storm, it may be a good idea to fill a large cooler with canned/bottled beverages and ice so you aren’t opening the refrigerator every five seconds to get a drink after the power goes out. After that ice melts, you can use the water for hand-washing.
Do the laundry.
Wash, dry, fold and put away ALL the laundry, including the sheets and bedding off all the beds, kitchen towels, bath towels, etc. Assume you won’t be able to do laundry for 2 weeks. Do you and your kids have enough underwear to go 2 weeks? Do you have enough socks and towels? If not, run out and gets some now, and remember to wash them when you get home.
Take photos of everything in your closets, the insides of your dressers, and anywhere else you store clothing and “soft goods” like linens and pillows. It will really help you when you file an insurance claim.
Do ALL the dishes and buy disposables.
It’s super-gross to wash dishes in cold water, and besides, you need the water for drinking. Wash all the dishes, put them away, and go get a supply of paper plates, cups, napkins and plastic silverware to use during the emergency.
Clean the kitchen and bathroom.
Nothing will demoralize you more in a disaster than a stinky, dirty kitchen or a yucky bathroom that you have to use in the dark, but you can’t clean because you don’t have electricity or hot water. It’s icky enough to pee without flushing when the toilet is clean…the alternative is pretty gross. Trust me, just clean it now, while the lights are still on. You’re welcome.
Take out ALL the garbage.
Toss out any expiring food, clean cat litter boxes, empty all trash cans in the house, including bathrooms. Remove anything that will cause an odor when the A/C is off. If you don’t have a trash day pickup before the storm, take it to a friend or family member who does or find a dumpster you can use (ask for permission).
Clean and declutter the floors.
You may be wandering around in the dark the first night. So declutter the floors, removing trip-and-fall hazards, and sweep, vacuum and/or mop them now while you can.
Enjoy a last-minute shower.
You will be running around stressing, cleaning, and getting ready for the storm for hours before it hits. You may be hot and sweaty. Just before the storm gets to your area, enjoy your last hot shower in what may be days. Be sure to wash your hair, and ladies, shave your legs while you still can. It may seem silly, but it’s great for morale.
If you don’t have your regular water supply, you must hoard it for drinking and change the way you use the bathroom. As the saying goes, “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” 💩 Flush the toilet as infrequently as you can get away with. If you have a camp toilet (or a camper) this may be the time to use it. Wipe with “flushable” wipes when possible, but throw them away rather than flushing. Now is not the time to clog the toilet–you’re already “overloading” it by flushing less frequently.
You can survive up to 3 weeks without food, but it will be a miserable 3 weeks. Plan ahead. You may want to cook and freeze single-serving sizes of meals that can be eaten at room temperature if you have time. Otherwise, rely on nuts, apples, oranges, protein bars, peanut butter, jelly, bread, tortillas, canned meats, pre-cooked rice, canned soup, fruits and vegetables and other non-perishable foods to get through the emergency.
If you have a grill, make sure you have propane or charcoal for at least a week of cooking. You can heat soup cans, boil water, make coffee, and other stuff besides just grilling meat. NEVER operate a grill indoors. Buy some heavy-duty aluminum foil for cooking food in packets. Remember, you don’t want to waste water on washing pots and pans. Cast-iron pans are a great addition to your grill, allowing you to fry and roast foods instead of just grilling.
Your gas stove may still work, but the electric ignition may not. You may have to light burners with a match. Unplug the stove and practice with a match before the power goes out. Avoid using a gas oven unless you know exactly where the pilot light is and it’s easily accessible. The last thing you want to do is fill your kitchen with gas while you struggle to light the pilot, if you have candles burning nearby.
Make sure you have food, water, medications, litter, and treats for each pet for at least 2 weeks of survivalist living.
Get your pet microchipped and make sure their shots are up-to-date in case they escape the house during or after the storm.
Take photos of your pet’s face and a full-body photo to help find and/or identify them after the disaster if they run away.
Have a crate ready for each pet in case you need to evacuate. Make sure the crate is labeled with the pet’s name and breed, your name, your address, and your cell phone number. Bring their favorite bedding and toys along with food, water, medications and litter.
Invest in an anti-stress garment if your pet is frightened of thunder.
Research which hotel chains are pet-friendly in case you need to evacuate inland and have pets with you. We’ve had great experiences with America’s Best Value Inn.
Fasten your hurricane shutters or board up your windows. Don’t bother with taping up windows. It won’t work, and it wastes your time and the tape. You have more important things to do.
Move your car into the garage, or at least move vehicles out from under large trees.
Clean your environment so you have clear, easy escape routes. Secure anything that will fly around, such as outdoor umbrellas, shade structures and yard signs. Store your potted plants, hanging plants, porch swing, grill, outdoor seat cushions and furniture, pool floats and other items in the garage if you have room. If you don’t, you may want to sink lightweight lawn chairs and similar waterproof items in your pool so they don’t blow around.
Money, Paperwork & Documents
Assume the banks and government offices will be closed, and the ATMs won’t work.
Make sure you have a supply of cash in small bills (cash registers may not work and no one knows how to do math or make change anymore).
Gather all important paperwork (wills, healthcare POAs, insurance policies, passports, IDs, irreplaceable photos, birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, etc.) Take photos of the fronts and backs of your IDs and credit cards, and upload them to a cloud storage account like Google Drive or Dropbox. (Do not email them to yourself! Email is not secure.) Seal important documents and photographs in food-sealer vacuum bags or zipper bags and store them in a binder or small file box that is easy to grab and evacuate with.
To help you file the insurance claim, take video and/or photos of all your belongings, including clothing, all your electronics and digital devices, all your art & collectibles, the contents of your refrigerator and freezer, your books, your furnishings, and the exterior and interior condition of the home and your vehicles from several angles.
Have a family “meet-up” plan in place so everyone knows where to assemble. Have a plan for people who can’t make it to the assembly location.
Know basic first aid to take care of small wounds.
Be very careful when clearing debris. Always wear sturdy shoes and gloves and even a hard hat if you have one. Don’t climb up on debris piles that may be unstable. Beware of gas leaks. Beware of live downed power lines. Understand it may be days before crews can come out to fix anything.
Don’t become part of the problem. Don’t go driving around unless it’s an emergency. Don’t drive through standing water (most storm deaths are from drowning). Don’t call 911 unless someone is literally dying. Don’t force first responders to risk their own lives rescuing you.
This is a partial list of recommended supplies from Ready.gov, with some additions from me:
- Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation (Note from Kathleen: 2 weeks’ worth is better)
- ￼Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food (Note from Kathleen: 2 weeks’ worth is better)
- Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container
- Whistle to signal for help (in case you’re trapped in debris, presumably)
- ￼￼￼￼￼Dust mask, to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
- ￼Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- Can opener for food (if kit contains canned food)
- Local maps (the kind printed on paper)
- Prescription medications
- Glasses and/or contacts and contact solution
- Infant formula and diapers
- Pet food, medications, bedding, litter and extra water for your pet(s)
- Emergency reference material such as a first aid book
- Sleeping bag or warm blanket and a complete set of linens (including a pillow) for each person. Consider additional bedding if you live in a cold-weather climate.
- At least a weeks’ worth of clean clothing for each person including outerwear, undergarments and closed, sturdy, puncture-resistant shoes (not flip-flops). Consider additional layers clothing if you live in a cold-weather climate.
- Fire Extinguisher
- Matches in a waterproof container
- Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
- Mess kits, paper cups, plates and plastic utensils, paper towels
- Paper and pencil
- Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children
You may want to pack all of this in your vehicle in case you have to evacuate on short notice.
More advice from Denis:
Check on all family members, set up emergency back up plans, and check on elderly neighbors.
Before the storm, unplug all electronics. There will be power surges during and after the storm.
Gas up your car and have a spare gas container for your generator or your car when you run out.
Take a video of your house and contents, walking room to room. Open cabinets/drawers and closets and video the contents. This will help if you need to make a claim later. It will show proof of items and help you list all the items (help your memory, so you don’t forget anything). (This is HIGHLY recommended. The “Soft Goods” company our insurance company assigned us to lost and/or ruined a lot of my favorite pieces of clothing after our fire. I still wish I had insisted on an inventory before they started work.)
I also heard you should freeze a cup of water, place a coin on top after it is frozen…keep this in your freezer to help you gauge the temperature if the power goes out. If the coin stays on top, the food is staying frozen. If the coin falls into the water, the freezer thawed out and most food will likely need to be thrown away. This is super helpful is you have to leave and come back, as it may appear everything is still frozen, but if the coin is in the cup–you will know!!