Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Our emergency plan

It's been nearly a year now since I blogged about the lessons we learned in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Unlike many of our neighbors, we came out of the storm relatively unscathed; there was no flooding either inside our house or immediately outside, and we lost power for less than 46 hours. However, this was long enough to open our eyes to both the strengths and the weaknesses in our disaster preparedness plan. On the plus side, we had a gas stove that would work without electricity, a well-stocked pantry, and an ample supply of fresh water stored up in the basement—so feeding ourselves was no problem. On the down side, however, we discovered that even with plenty of candles and flashlights, we still had trouble lighting up any room enough to read or play games by. Also, while our house didn't get that cold with the furnace off in late October, I couldn't help suspecting that we wouldn't fare nearly as well if we suffered a prolonged power outage in, say, January. And although our landline phone continued to work reliably throughout the power outage, we worried about how we'd manage to stay in touch if a phone line did get taken down by a stray tree branch or something. (This turned out to be a well-founded concern when, several months later, our phone went out twice in the space of a week, which ultimately led to our dumping the landline in favor of VoIP.)

So, to address these concerns, we've added three new items to our storm-preparation kit:

1. A battery-powered LED lantern. This little guy was my Christmas present to Brian last year (appropriately enough, since he thinks it looks like a little plastic Santa Claus). With three D-cell batteries installed, it can run for 380 hours on its low power setting and 195 hours on its high setting, which is bright enough in our windowless downstairs bathroom to make reading quite comfortable. Even if we ran it for six straight hours a day, it could get us through more than a month without power on a single set of batteries—and if for some reason that's not enough, we have more batteries stowed in a drawer.

2. An emergency radio that can be recharged with either solar power or a hand crank. This was also a Christmas gift, one that I suggested to Brian's folks when they asked what he might like. In addition to regular AM and FM signals, it picks up seven emergency weather channels, and a jack on the rear allows it to be used as a cell phone charger as well. And should we need more illumination, it also includes a built-in LED flashlight—though it doesn't hold a candlepower to the light put out by the little red lantern.

3. A super-size box of chemical hand and body warmers. Of all the flaws in our disaster plan, the possibility of being left without heat in the middle of winter was the one that concerned me most. The lack of light might put us at risk for boredom, and the lack of a chargeable phone might leave us out of contact with friends and family, but the lack of heat was the one problem that could actually threaten our physical safety. Most of the backup heating systems I could think of, from wood stoves to generators, seemed far too costly considering that we might never actually have to use it, and most sites cautioned against using propane or kerosene heaters indoors. Some sites recommended crowding your whole family into the smallest room in the house with as many blankets as possible and relying on your body heat to keep warm—but that seemed to me like a pretty uncertain plan, and not much fun even if it worked. So when I came across this site that mentioned chemical hand and body warmers for keeping warm in a power outage, it seemed like the simplest solution. The box contains 40 packets, each of which is supposed to provide heat for up to 18 hours, so even if we each use one a day, we should have enough to get through a 20-day power outage without freezing our booties off. They should also keep for at least six years, so we won't have to worry about replacing them before 2019—and even if there isn't a single blizzard between now and then, the $36 we spent on the box will work out to only 6 bucks a year, which is cheap for a storm insurance policy. Moreover, we were able to stuff a couple of the packets into our car's emergency medical kit—so now we have a little extra protection to carry with us on the road as well.

So, for less than $100 all told, we now have a complete emergency kit, which should see us through a storm at any time of year in safety and at least reasonable comfort. (We've probably spent a couple of additional bucks on matches and spare batteries, but our emergency water supplies are simply tap water stored in empty soda and juice bottles, so they cost us essentially nothing.) And if we're never called upon to use any of it—well, $100 to keep storms away from our doorstep is cheap at twice the price.
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