In mid-February 2021, a huge winter storm devastated the Southern U.S., leaving millions of Texans without power or even clean drinking water for the foreseeable future. The breakdown of Texas’ power supply system is the perfect example of how our power grids can be compromised by natural forces like bitter cold, heavy snow, ice, and high winds, which cause a surge in demand as people bump up the heat. There’s also a growing threat of power outages due to cyberattacks and acts of terrorism.
Are you prepared to go through an emergency like that? For most people, the answer is no, and that can have deadly consequences. And if it can happen in Texas, a state where unforgiving summers usually give way to mild winters, it can happen anywhere, especially as climate change begins to alter regional weather patterns.
It’s scary and a bit overwhelming to imagine what might happen if the lights went out for an extended period. But there’s plenty you can do to prepare for the worst so you can weather the storm.
How to Prepare for a Long-Term Outage
Severe weather- or natural disaster-related power outages could last for weeks. Preparing for an extended power outage involves looking at several different needs and investing in the supplies you need to stay safe.
You need at least 1 gallon of water per person per day to function during an emergency. You also need extra water for pets, cooking, and hygiene. If you’re preparing for a two-week emergency, that comes to 56 to 112 gallons or more of water. Many people don’t have the space to store that much water, and at an average of $1 per gallon, that’s a big investment.
It’s wise to have a least a week’s worth of water on hand. That’s especially important if your local water supply gets contaminated due to a lack of power. That can happen if your city’s water treatment facility loses power and the system loses pressure. Without pressure, contaminants like bacteria and viruses can enter the pipes through cracks and joints, contaminating the water.
But you can also look at other ways to get water during an emergency. For example, is there a lake, river, or stream nearby? Could you collect rain from the roof using a rain barrel?
You also need to look at ways to purify water during an emergency, whether you’re collecting it from nature or the water department is recommending boiling. Water purification tablets, bleach, and heat are all economical ways to purify water. You can also purchase a water filter, such as the LifeStraw personal water filter or a Berkey water filter.
If the power goes out for an extended period, store shelves will be emptied within hours, and they might not be restocked for a while. That’s why it’s crucial to have a long-term food pantry and know what to do with the foods in your fridge and freezer.
Long-Term Food Pantry
If you already have plenty of food tucked away, you can avoid some of the inevitable stress that comes with a power outage. Focus on storing nonperishable food you already eat. Some sensible options include:
- Peanut butter
- Powdered milk
- Canned vegetables, especially canned beans
- Beef or chicken bouillon
- Dried fruit
- Granola bars
- Fruit juice
- Instant coffee and tea
- Comfort foods, such as cookies and chocolate
- A manual can opener
You can find a complete list of foods that work well for an emergency food supply at Ready.gov. You can also invest in some “meals ready to eat,” or “MREs.” MREs are complete meals, and all you need is water to activate the heater (which is included with each meal). While MREs are expensive compared to buying individual ingredients, they can be a lifesaver in the first few nights without power while everyone is trying to figure out how to adjust and survive.
Preparing a food pantry can get expensive, especially if you decide to store a one-month supply of meals. However, there are plenty of ways to save on groceries as you’re stocking up. First, purchase nonperishable foods for your emergency pantry as they go on sale. Stock up slowly. Focus first on building a three-day supply of meals, then work your way up. You can also use strategies like extreme couponing to save even more.
Although you can save quite a bit by shopping at discount grocery stores, pay careful attention to expiration dates. Often, discount grocery stores stock and sell food that’s about to expire. That’s fine if you’re going to eat the food right away. But you’re shopping for food you plan to store for months or years. Instead, purchase shelf-stable foods that will stay good for a long time.
Refrigerator & Freezer
When the power goes out, your refrigerator and freezer will only stay cold for so long. According to the American Red Cross, an unopened refrigerator can keep food cold for four hours. After that, temperatures begin to rise to unsafe levels. A full, unopened freezer can keep food frozen for 48 hours. A half-full freezer stays frozen for 24 hours.
During an outage, it’s helpful to have a food thermometer on hand. You can use it to see which foods are safe to eat by checking the refrigerator’s temperature. Throw out any food that has been exposed to 40-degree F temperatures for two hours or more.
You can extend the cooling life of your refrigerator by preparing beforehand. Keep 1 or 2 gallons of water in the freezer. Not only will this make your freezer more efficient when the power is on, but when it goes off, you can transfer these frozen jugs to the refrigerator to keep food cold longer.
It’s also wise to know other methods of refrigeration. For example, if you have a large cooler, you can cool foods efficiently by transferring them to the cooler. Use ice or your frozen water jugs to keep the food cold.
You can also keep food cooler by storing it underground in a basement or root cellar.
Once you have an emergency food supply, consider how you’re going to cook when you don’t have power. It’s smart to have a balance between food that’s ready to eat and food you have to cook. Hot meals can do wonders to raise spirits during an emergency, but it’s going to be more difficult to heat and cook food, not to mention obtain safe water for cooking and washing.
If your home has a fireplace, fire pit, or wood stove, you already have an easy way to cook hot meals for your family. Make sure you keep an emergency supply of firewood and kindling on hand so you can quickly light a fire if the lights go out. Store as much as you can so you’re prepared for a long-term outage.
If your home has a gas stove, you can still use it during a power outage. However, you must light it manually with a lighter or match, as electric starters don’t function without power. Make sure you read your stove’s instruction manual so you know how to do it safely.
You can’t light your gas oven without power, though. But you can invest in a solar oven. Solar ovens harness the power of the sun’s ultraviolet rays to cook food just like a slow cooker, and they’re a fantastic addition to your family’s preparedness plan. Costs for solar ovens range from $80 to $400 or more.
Small propane stoves or camp stoves are easy to tuck into a closet for emergency food preparation. Propane stoves are relatively inexpensive (starting at around $25 for a two-burner stove) and easy to use. However, you must stock up on fuel as well. If you have a larger gas or charcoal grill, make sure you have an extra propane tank or several charcoal bags put away for emergencies.
Note: Propane tanks can lose pressure and become difficult to use in extreme cold. If you’re preparing for a power outage due to harsh winter storms, you also need a way to keep your propane tank from getting too cold, such as a Powerblanket.
If a long-term power outage occurs in the winter, you need supplies to stay warm. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or wood stove, you’re a step ahead as long as you have plenty of firewood on hand. A portable kerosene heater is another option. While these can be expensive ($100 and up), you can save by purchasing them used on eBay or at garage sales or thrift stores.
Another option is to use a portable generator to power an electric heater. If you decide to buy a generator, never use it indoors or in an enclosed space, such as a garage with the garage door closed, as that can quickly lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Consumer Reports notes that more than 900 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning while using portable generators from 2005 to 2017. To be safe, place the generator at least 20 feet from the house with the exhaust directed away from windows and doors. And make sure your home has a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector for an added layer of safety.
If you buy a gas-powered generator, you also need extra gas to fill the gas tank. Local gas stations might not have the generators they need to operate during a power outage, and gas might be in short supply. Keep extra gas on hand so you have it when you need it.
Ensure you have a sleeping bag for every household member. Sleeping bags, especially those rated at 20 degrees or colder, are incredibly effective at trapping body heat. Smaller children can sleep with adults to stay warm.
You can also purchase a space blanket. NASA designed space blankets to help retain almost all your body heat. They’re inexpensive (just over $4 each on Amazon) and very compact. You should also keep some in your car for emergencies that occur when you’re away from home.
Make sure you have a warm wool or fleece hat for everyone in your family and enough blankets to make a bed for everyone on the floor (which will help keep everyone warm). Use hand and feet warmers to help everyone stay warm. To save money, purchase them during warmer months, when they are often on sale.
You can also stay warm by huddling together in one central room. Close the curtains or hang blankets in front of the windows and close all doors to retain heat, laying rolled towels at their bases to prevent heat transfer between rooms.
City sewer systems depend on electricity to function. While most have backup generators, those generators are dependent on fuel, which, during a long-term outage, might run out within a few days. That’s why you need to have a plan in place to address your family’s sanitation needs.
The average person produces 1 ounce of feces for every 12 pounds of body weight, which means a 160-pound person produces around 1 pound of feces daily. If you do the math for everyone in your family, you can see how quickly sanitation can become a serious issue.
Not only is it completely dispiriting to have no way to dispose of waste, but it is also a serious health hazard. With a little preparedness, you can efficiently and safely deal with the situation.
Dealing With Septic Systems
If you’re on a septic system, you can still flush your toilet if you have water to put into the tank. Simply pour water into the toilet tank until it touches the float and then flush. Or you can pour water quickly and forcefully into the bowl itself, which causes the water to siphon and flush on its own.
However, if your area has experienced a great deal of rain or flooding, it’s a bad idea to use your septic system. If the water table is too high, your septic will not work and waste will quickly spill into your yard, causing a serious health hazard.
If you have a yard, you can also dispose of waste by digging 6- to 8-inch-deep holes in the ground. Ensure each hole is at least 200 feet from any water source, and try to dig holes in sunny spots. Sun aids in decomposition. You can build a temporary toilet to make this easier.
Dealing With Municipal Systems
If you’re on a municipal system, the toilets won’t work if the main sewer is out of power. If you’re sure the main sewer system is down, don’t flush your toilet. Everyone in your neighborhood will be flushing, and without power to keep this waste moving, the lines will quickly become blocked and start to back up into people’s homes. Instead, build a temporary toilet.
Building a Temporary Toilet
The easiest way to make a temporary toilet is to use your existing toilet with a few additional supplies.
- Several boxes of heavy-duty 55-gallon black garbage bags (contractor garbage bags work best)
- Duct tape
- A disinfectant, such as wood ash, kitty litter, sawdust, quicklime, or portable toilet chemical decomposers (like the kind used in RVs)
- Spray bottle
- Household bleach
- Rubber gloves
- Twist ties
- 2 or more (5-gallon) buckets with lids
- Remove as much water from the bowl as possible, and then line the bowl with 2 heavy-duty black garbage bags. Use the duct tape to secure the garbage bags to the bowl under the seat. Fill the spray bottle with bleach.
- After each use, pour in 1 cup of your disinfectant, and then spray it with bleach.
- When the bag is 1/2 to 2/3 full, spray again with bleach, don rubber gloves, and remove it. Seal the bag with a twist tie, put the waste in a bucket, and put on the lid.
- Dispose of the waste when services are restored or you’re able to find an appropriate site.
If you have space, you can also consider buying a portable toilet.
Health & Wellness
A long-term power outage means you likely won’t have access to the medicines or medical devices you and your family might need to stay healthy. One way to prepare for this — and cut costs — is to learn to rely on DIY natural remedies to keep your family healthy. For example, elderberry syrup is an incredibly effective immune booster and can help you and your kids recover from illness faster. You can purchase elderberries inexpensively online and make your own elderberry syrup.
If possible, have extra medications on hand for a long-term outage. Due to insurance rules and legal regulations, it may be impossible to get extra or early doses of your prescription medication just to have on hand.
So always refill all your prescriptions as soon as possible under your insurance or the law. You can also talk to your physician about what to do in case of emergencies. If you suspect a power outage may happen due to an impending natural disaster, the doctor may be able to write a prescription for a longer-term supply, such as 60 days rather than 30. Or the pharmacist may be able to fill your prescription early under an emergency exception to early refills.
If someone in your family relies on a medical device, think carefully about how you’ll provide power for the device during an emergency. If possible, invest in a battery backup or small portable generator to power the device.
Bathing & Personal Care
Bathing is going to be another issue if the water stops flowing. Even if the water still works, the water heater might not, meaning a traditional bath or shower would be very cold, a serious safety issue if the power is out due to a winter storm.
While we don’t need to shower every day, we do need to keep ourselves clean. That’s why it’s essential to have the right supplies:
- Baby wipes or rinse-free shower wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Dry shampoo or baking soda
- Feminine hygiene products
Stock up on these items as they go on sale or use coupons to save.
You can also use soap, water, and a clean washrag for bathing. Using clean water, wet your rag and soap to create a lather. Wash your body, and then rinse the rag with clean water. Use the soap-free wet rag to wipe the soap off thoroughly, rinsing the rag and repeating as necessary.
It’s difficult to wash your hair when you don’t have access to clean running water. However, you can lightly sprinkle on baking soda or use dry shampoo on your scalp to absorb oils and refresh your hair.
During a power outage, it’s essential you keep commonly used items and work surfaces as clean as possible. Keeping the bathroom, plates, cutlery, and cooking equipment clean reduces the spread of germs, disease, and illness. You must use potable (safe-to-drink) water to clean any surfaces you plan to use to prepare or eat food.
One way to make things easier if potable water is in short supply is to have plenty of disposable plates, bowls, and cutlery so you don’t have to worry about finding clean water to wash dishes with. These items often go on sale during the summer barbecue season and around the winter holidays, so stock up when the prices are at their lowest.
You also need regular household cleaners and bleach to clean surfaces. Also keep extra rolls of paper towels handy so you don’t create more laundry to wash.
If the power is out long term, you also need a way to wash your clothes. That might mean driving to a laundromat in an area that has power. However, if a large section of your state or region is out of power or the power outage is due to an icy winter storm, that isn’t an option. Then you must wash your clothes by hand. Having a simple hand-powered clothes washer and some natural detergent that rinses easily, like borax, makes that task easier.
You also need to look at how you’re going to illuminate your home when the lights go out. Candles are an inexpensive choice, but they can be dangerous, especially if you have children in the house. Some better lighting options include:
If you have outdoor solar lights in your yard, you can move these indoors at night to light hallways or bathrooms. Just put them back outside to recharge during the day.
Technology & Communication
Storms or damaged lines can cause a power surge. Power surges occur when the flow of electricity is interrupted and then starts again. While surges typically make the overhead lights flicker, they can damage or destroy sensitive equipment plugged into the walls, like cellphones or computers.
That’s why it pays to invest in surge protectors, which protect your technology from any power surges that occur before an outage or when the electric company is trying to restore power.
You also need a hand-crank or solar-powered radio to get news, provided local stations are able to broadcast.
It’s also helpful to invest in a solar charger so you can easily charge small devices like cellphones and tablets. While more expensive, they also make higher-powered solar chargers that can charge laptops. Just ensure the charger you buy is compatible with all the devices you need, and don’t expect solar chargers to work miracles. They may not be as efficient as electricity.
Fun & Distractions
Think about ways to stay entertained when the lights go out so you don’t sit around thinking about how miserable you are. Have some family games tucked away so you have something fun to do that doesn’t rely on electricity. Even a deck of cards, playing shadow puppets with flashlights, or a quick game of charades can lift everyone’s spirits and help the time pass more quickly. You can also put together a puzzle or play chess or an adult game like Cards Against Humanity.
It can also be the best time to work on a craft project or hobby you can do by lamplight, like embroidery, knitting, or reading. There’s no need to feel guilty you aren’t “doing something more productive.”
When preparing for a power outage, it helps to start with your basic needs first. Focus on food, water, and things you need for a safe and warm shelter. Make a list of everything you need, and watch the weekly sales so you can stock up when prices dip. By taking it slowly and having a plan, you can prepare for a power outage without breaking the bank.
It’s not pleasant to think about living without power for days or weeks at a time. But doing what you can to prepare now can give you peace of mind and help ensure you get through it as safely and comfortably as possible.
For more information on preparedness and self-sufficiency, see our articles on organizing a 72-hour emergency kit, preparing for a natural disaster, preparing for harsh winter weather, and basic homesteading skills.