Emergency Preparedness in an Age of Technology

This past Friday night, it started snowing here – the first snow of the season, in fact. It kept snowing through early Sunday, depositing around a foot in total.

Saturday morning, we lost power, which wasn’t restored until late that night.

We were pretty much unaffected by the power outage, truth be told. Not because we’re any sort of neo-Luddites, or Amish, but because we had some basic emergency preparations in place. Here’s a basic recount of what we did, what worked, and what didn’t.

As I’ve said before, I tend to lurk over at Zombie Squad, a fairly amusing survivalist website. The actual usefulness of what you can learn there is up for debate – IMO they spend somewhat too much time planning for big, TEOTWAWKI stuff and too much time talking about guns, basically turning “survivalism” into a strangely idealized anarcho-primitivist lifestyle. All fine and dandy if you have some sort of raging monkey boner to be the next Swiss Family Robinson, but not especially useful if you’re broke, aren’t paranoid, and don’t see large-caliber rifle fire as a solution to most of life’s problems.

(Quick field-identification guide for you: Militia members are mildly paranoid anti-government conspiracy theorists with a loose grasp on reality, an inexplicable fondness for late-Cold War-era military surplus, a belief that California is full of zombies, and a fetish for large-caliber foreign rifles. Zombie Squaddies, by contrast, are mildly paranoid anti-government conspiracy theorists with a loose grasp on reality, an inexplicable fondness for current-issue militaria, a belief that all their neighbors are moments away from becoming flesh-eating zombies, and a fetish for ridiculously over-accessorized AR-15s. The weapons and camo patterns are important recognition aids when encountering such groups post-disaster, real or perceived. Staggering around drunkenly while mumbling about brains and NASCAR will get you immediately mowed down in a fusilade of mil-surplus SS109 rounds if you encounter Zombie Squaddies, but will instead result in an offer of free beer and an invitation to join the looting if you have encountered militiamen. Which fate is worse is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Anyway, that’s largely why we don’t have a lot of really overt or noticeable emergency preparations here at Das Hellhaus. No generator, No walk-in gun locker, no ginormous stockpile of multicam clothing. No half-truckload of MREs in the basement.

Don’t have ’em, don’t really want ’em, and didn’t need ’em for our Day Without Power In Winter.

Okay. So. What did we have, then?

First, we have a gas stove, meaning we’re able to cook without electricity. That’s a big plus, and took care of our food needs pretty nicely, given that we actualy know how to cook with it.

Second, we’re all nerds, so we had a lot of ways of passing time. Between the four of us, we have something like six laptops, an e-book reader, and six or seven MP3/MP4 players, including a couple of older ones that take actual batteries. We also have a battery-powered radio, a couple hundred books, and a couple of board games. We can easily entertain ourselves for a couple of days without electricity, and did so Saturday just fine.

I mean, one of my roommates played Monkey Island on a netbook for about five hours, while the power was out. Not exactly a grueling hardship.

The laptops and netbooks were useful for entertainment, and also helped keep people warm, as did the cats. They (the laptops, not the cats) also allowed us to communicate with the outside world, because I hooked up one of our spare UPSes to the DSL router, giving us internet access. By my figures we should get about 20 hours of use out of that combination, but we used it sparingly – on for about ten minutes every three hours or so, just long enough to check our email and the online news.

We weren’t real sure what we were going to do about warmth, as the furnace won’t run without electricity. It wasn’t super cold, as the temperature outside was within a few degrees of freezing, but we really needn’t have bothered. Why? Because our primary light sources also double quite nicely as heaters.

I’m talking about kerosene lanterns and oil lamps; we have two of the former and four of the latter. With at least three of us in the living room at any given point, and at least two of the lights lit, we were actually able to maintain a temperature in there of between 68 and 72 Fahrenheit – perfectly comfortable, in other words. How? Well, looking at online data suggests large kerosene lanterns give off around 1400 BTU each, and oil lamps around 600 each. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but by nightfall – when it got colder, and all the lights were lit – we had the rough equivalent of a 1,000-watt electric heater going – more than enough to keep a modest-sized room at a comfortable temperature.

For extra light, we had tea-lites and a couple other candles, plus a boatload of high-powered flashlights and a lot of spare batteries. And we had probably three or four days worth of lamp oil on hand, too.

So, that was how we got through a snowy winter’s day with no electricity – by carefully harnessing a combination of modern and quite old technology. A little bizarre, maybe, but it worked for us.

Things didn’t go perfectly, though; here’s what we learned we could have better prepared for:

Coffee. One of my roommates is a hardcore java junkie, and becomes a bit of a dick without their very regular fix. We had a couple pounds of coffee beans, and we could have run the grinder off a UPS. For some bizarre reason, however, we don’t have a non-electric coffee pot. We made a gajillion cups of tea and hot cocoa instead, and suffered. Yes, we know about cold press; Java Junkie does not wait patiently.

Simple food. When you’ve just shoveled the walkway free of wet snow with the consistency of concrete, while being pelted by strong winds and yet more wet snow, a nice bowl of hot soup goes down really well. Ironically, we didn’t actually have that much soup of any sort on hand, just two or three cans. We went through that, most of the ramen, and some of the miso in one day. We had all the stuff on hand to make a big pot of beef soup with either noodles or barley, and we probably should have started on that first. We weren’t without food – we’re just so used to losing power (this is a very regular occurrence here, fuck you very much, Xcel Energy) during storms in the middle of summer that our pantry, fridge, and freezers contains a lot of things meant to be eaten either cold or at room temperature. In August, an ice-cream sundae with a cherry on top = win. In November, not so much so. A minor oversight on our part that will soon be remedied.

Batteries. A lot of our electronic doodads rely on rechargeable batteries, of which we have a large but finite supply. Notably lacking around the house are primary batteries for most of these things, particularly flashlights taking CR123s or 18650-sized lithium cells. We should probably acquire some extras, just in case.

So, yeah. We reckon we could have gone three or four days without any real inconvenience, and perhaps another week with mild-to-moderate inconvenience, just on what we happened to have in the house. Not too bad for a bunch of working-class slackers, non?

Published in: Geekiness, General | on November 15th, 2010| 2 Comments »

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2 Comments

  1. On 11/15/2010 at 3:39 pm peterxyz Said:

    Given the performance of current flashlight technology I’vwe made a conscious choice to avoid CR123/18650 kit. Hell I know its sexy and I’m ditching some seriously nice kit.
    On the other hand I can walk into a shop and buy primary cells. They might even be interchangable with the ones I need for other stuff.

  2. On 11/15/2010 at 10:49 pm Nemo Said:

    I held out for the longest time, but eventually gave in to “progress”, to where I now have three 18650 lights, including an SSC P7 I use as a bicycle headlight, and eight cells, plus four rechargeable 123s.

    I know you can go just about anywhere and get AAs, but I’m less concerned about going out and buying cells than having stock on hand for emergencies (e.g. blizzards), and we’ve learned from experience that AA batteries tend to “disappear” into remote controls and things without anyone really noticing. Nobody walks off with the 18650s because there are only three things in the house that take ’em – all flashlights…