Staying safe during extended power outages: What to do in the absence of heat, refrigeration and electricity

Outages can range from being mildly inconvenient to incredibly dangerous

A series of powerful winter storms recently struck the state of Texas, leaving millions of its residents without power. But even days later, as officials work to restore steady service, many are still stuck in the dark and cold.

Power outages can range from being mildly inconvenient to somewhat dangerous, depending on the circumstances. That said, it's always best to prepare ahead of time, for potential periods without power, while also knowing how to react when in the midst of an extended outage.

Preparation

According to Ready.gov, one of the most important aspects of preparing for a power outage is having a proper inventory of household items. Homeowners and residents should make sure that they have emergency supplies including flashlights, radios, batteries and non-perishable foods. Anyone in the home who uses battery-operated medical equipment should also prepare a back-up. Similarly, residents should be aware of any perishable medications in the house, and understand how long each will last if they can't be stored at the proper temperature.

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After an outage occurs, it’s a good idea to unplug all appliances or devices that aren’t in use, to avoid any damage from potential surges.

Generators

Some homes may be equipped with generators that run off of gas lines or alternative energy sources. These devices can be wired to provide on for specific appliances (refrigerators, heating or air conditioning systems) or the entire house.

Smaller, portable generators can also be useful in power outages, but only if used properly. These sorts of generators should only be used outdoors, and away from windows, to reduce the chances of inhaling any fumes or carbon monoxide, Ready.gov states. (This goes for charcoal grills or camp stoves, as well.)

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Whenever operating generators, make sure to use them as instructed — never try to power too many devices or appliances.

Heating/Cooling

Power outages often occur amid extreme weather, meaning residents can often be left in homes lacking heat or air conditioning, but it’s never a good idea to try and heat a home with a stove or oven during cold weather.

Regardless of the time of year, if the temperature in a home cannot be kept at a safe level, both the CDC and Ready.gov recommend traveling to an alternate location, such as a shelter, if possible. Areas experiencing outages may even set up specific locations to help the public with heating and cooling issues. Locals officials are often able to provide information on these locations. For example, the Texas Division of Emergency Management has published a map of warming centers around the state.

The CDC further recommends becoming familiar with signs of hypothermia or heat-related conditions (stroke, exhaustion, cramps and fainting). During warm weather events, taking cold showers is also considered a safe way to cool down.

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Food

If the power goes out, don’t open refrigerators or freezers whenever possible. According to the CDC's latest guidance, perishable foods like meat, fish, sliced fruits and veggies, eggs, milk and leftovers should be tossed after four hours without power. As for the freezer, food will become unsafe to eat after 48 hours in a fully stocked freezer, and 24 hours in a half-full freezer. And any foods with "an unusual odor, color, or texture," should also be thrown out, no matter how long they've been stored in a non-functioning refrigerator or freezer.

f possible, try to store perishable foods in a cooler packed with ice at the first sign of a lengthy outage — just remember to keep perishables at temperatures of 40 degrees or below.