What you need when the lights go out

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As summer nears, so does the possibility of power outages. How New Yorkers can be prepared


  • Blackout in NYC, August 14, 2003. Photo: Dennis Milam, via flickr

A blackout checklist

Crank radio & USB cable to connect cellphone

Flashlights: One per person; one big one per room

Batteries: Back-ups for all devices; check the expiration date when buying

Water: One gallon per person per day for drinking

Large cooler

Canned, jarred or dry food: Enough calories to match at least one day’s diet

Manual can opener

Food thermometer

Cash: $100 in small bills

Summer. Sun. Fun. Blackout. Yes, the Great Blackout of 1965 happened in November, but New York City went dark in July 1977 and August 14, 2003, and while Hurricane Sandy turned off downtown lights in October 2012, let’s agree that qualifies as “Indian summer.”

The trick to getting through is, as Scouts have been reciting since 1907, “Be prepared.”

When the lights flicker and the TV dims, to confirm what’s happening, reach for your small transistor radio or the updated version, a hand-crank radio with a USB port that enables you to power up the battery on your cellphone. A charged phone will work as long as the “service towers” do, but if as happened on 9/11, several million people are trying to use their cells at the same time, there may be delays.

A traditional corded telephone plugged into a jack gets its power from the central office and will continue to function during a power outage. Cordless phones need their own source of electricity, so they won’t work unless you have your own generator. If you’ve upgraded to Verizon Fios voice service or have 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. Both Verizon spokesperson Laura Merritt and Spectrum spokesman John Bonomo say, “Keep your old corded phone to plug in for emergencies.”

Want light? Flashlights are safer and better than candles. Count on one hand flash per person and one large searchlight 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.

Thirsty? Red Cross advice is 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 because electric stoves won’t work but gas ones will, although you may have to — carefully — light the burner with a kitchen match. If your water comes from a well that requires an electric pump, an unlikely scenario in Manhattan where water flows by gravity down from a tank atop the building roof, you might also need water to flush and household bleach to neutralize any odors.

Has the blackout lasted several hours? You must be hungry. Your three choices, in order, 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 or luncheon meats. A full freezer keeps food frozen longer; make it a rule to pack yours tight, using containers of ice to fill empty space as needed. The cooler is for emergency provisions: “Survival meals” (available from Sam’s Club, COSTCO, & Amazon), 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). Plus a food thermometer, a manual can opener, and 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. Restock the food cooler and the bottled water. Add backup batteries as needed. Charge your cellphone every night.

Then relax.

Summer’s over.

You’re ready for hurricane season.

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