23 September 2010

Igor, Turn Out Those Lights, I'm Ready

When we first moved in together, my wife was confused by all the emergency gear I had, a pityful amount at the time.  As I added oil lamps and propane burners, setting aside canned food, she grew concerned that I was preparing for the apocalypse.  I told her, "No, not the apocalypse, but if that happens as well, I want to be ready."

I grew up in the rural community of Hr. Grace, on top of a big hill overlooking the bay.  Very scenic.  Also very windy.  We would lose electricity 3 or more times a year and lose the water at least twice annually.  Our house was heated by woodstove, an economic decision in the energy-crisis 70's; my parents were avid campers - the kind that actually camp, not drive a camper; and my father had inherited some 100+ year old oil lamps, from back when they knew how to make such things.  So when a storm hit, we were well set up.  Blizzards, hurricanes, or just over-taxed power grid, a few flicks of matches and it was business as usual at home.

After I moved to St. John's, I hadn't given much thought to emergency gear.  The city is more stable, after all, and I was alone.  But during a couple of big storms, I found myself wishing for the security of being prepared.  Rummaging through a box in the dark, trying to find those pillar candles I bought on sale but never used; trying to heat a can of creamed corn with a propane torch (don't do it, there's a plastic coating on the inside of cans which melts and makes the food taste funny); shivering in my bed, realizing that I did possessed neither enough blankets nor candles to warm up the room - all these events made me vow to get better prepared.  So, after I found a steady job and a significant other, I started building up the supplies. 

It was slow at first, a few purchases here and there.  Candles, also used for romantic purposes.  An old kerosene heater conned from Dad when the price of oil doubled over night (he was back on the wood stove again).  A couple of flashlights, a few more blankets, the 'accidently' bought extra canned goods which languished in the back of the cupboard.  I could justify all those purchases without revealing my fixation on preparation.

When I bought the first propane burner, the truth came out.  She demanded an explanation, which I gave.  She didn't understand.  She had mostly grown up in cities and, as her parents were corps officers in the Salvation Army, they never had to face many emergencies without supplies.  She agreed to ignore my preparations, as long as a) I didn't 'waste' too much money and b) didn't start constructing a bunker.

We had a few blackouts after that, but she still didn't really see the point.  She would observe that we could have eaten sandwiches, that the power was only off for a few hours, that the candles were useful all the time.  Then came the X-mess blizzard, when our son was almost 2.  The city was dark for 20 hours.  She was at work when it hit and came home to find me shovelling the driveway.  The house was fully lit, our son safely playing in his pen, hot food and coffee in the kitchen courtesy of the propane burned, house warm and toasy from the kerosene heater.  The following day, she was a convert to being ready.

So when Hurricane Igor hit, preparations focused on preventing the porch from leaking (failed) and coping with the flooding basement (until the power, and, hence, sump-pump, failed).  As dark came on, out came the 2 burner camp stove, hurricane lanterns, candles.  We had a normal meal with boiled coffee to follow, played and read and listened to the battery-powered radio, and went to bed on time, as normal.  But nor before I went next door to check on how our new-parents neighbours were faring.  They were trying to figure out how to heat up formula for their 2 month old.  I returned with my spare propane burner and sorted them out. 

The next day, while our electricity was on, large parts of the city were still out.  She had heard about crowd of people buying flashlights and remarked that it was awful late in the game to be buying that stuff.  And that was the final evidence that she completely understands the my obsession isn't, that it is just good thinking.  We have the basics covered, but I will keep expanding our equipment.  Right now we can get through a couple days, but I'd rather be able to handle a week without problem. 

During times like this, you never want to be worrying about basics.  Being prepared doesn't take a lot of effort or money, just a few purchases here and there.  Here's a brief list, for those of you who want to start getting ready:
1 - Light - flashlights are OK but batteries decay rapidly.  Candles have a much longer life, but make sure you are aware of the fire hazards they present.  Your safest and best solution is oil lanterns.  You can get them for $5-$10 anywhere they sell camping gear and, while they sell special oil for them, they will also burn any flammable liquid.  I once ran mine on paint-thinner. Lanterns have glass-globes protected by wire, making them difficult to break and also have handles so you can hang them up.  More expensive options: propane lanterns, white-gas backpacking lanterns.
2 - Heat - just about anything you burn for light will produce heat, so if you follow the previous suggests, your house will stay tolerably warm.  You can also pick up some wool blankets at thrift stores for $5-$10 each and even threadbare they are great insulators.  They also will keep you warm when soaking wet.
3 - Cooking - you can get a single propane burner which screws on to a tank for around $15.  Tanks are $5. It's difficult to cook anything big on that, however.  They can handle a small saucepan or frying pan and that's about it.  Bear in mind that you may need to boil all drinking water.  The single burner is a good starting place though.  If you can afford the extra expense, you can get a propane camp stove, which has 2 burners and can handle large pots.  They fit nicely on your existing stove top.  If you own a gas BBQ, that will do in a pinch, but you probably won't want to be grilling in a gale.  Of course, if you already cook with gas, this is all unnecessary.
4 - Food, Water.  Shouldn't be too hard to sort, as you are likely to have food in your cupboards anyway, and all that stuff in the freezer will need to be cooked if the power's off for more than a day.  Still, good sense says to have some extras laid in.  Suggestions: canned hams/chicken, stew, mixed veg.  For water, get a big jug of sealed spring water and keep it in a dark place.
5 - Information and entertainment.  Make sure you have a battery-powered radio with fresh batteries or, better still, a hand-crank one.  Keep a few decks of cards or board games around, especially if you have kids.

There's a lot more you can add: power inverters for the car, gas generators, tools and supplies for making repairs, and so on, but that list of basics will get you through most minor events and and some major ones.  Try to keep everything together in the same closet or a large box so that you won't have to go searching in the dark.

Remember, the problem with a high tech world is that it runs on electricity.  Mother Nature doesn't need electricity and doesn't care about your cel phones, video games, or general welfare.  Look after yourself and, hey, look after someone else too.

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