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Are you ready for the Frankenstorm? October 28, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Ironically, Silence Dogood had just written two posts about disaster preparedness here on Poor Richard’s Almanac when word reached us of the imminent “Frankenstorm,” a combination of three hellacious fronts, including an arctic storm and hurricane Sandy, which will converge on the East Coast, combining gale-force winds with snow and heavy rain, snapping trees and causing lengthy power outages. The hurricane alone has already killed 43 people in the Caribbean; just wait ’til it meets up with the other fronts up here.

Check out Silence’s preparedness posts by typing their titles, “Hoarding for the apocalypse” and “Eating from stored food,” in our search bar at upper right. But thinking about last October’s freak snowstorm, which snapped off endless branches because the trees, as now, still had their leaves, and toppled numerous trees, cutting power to millions, has given Hallowe’en a whole new meaning here at Hawk’s Haven. Our friend Ben and Silence remember being without power for a week in freak freezing temperatures, when we should have been enjoying Indian summer. Instead of sitting on our deck watching the flames ascend from our fire pit, we were wondering how to keep our pipes from freezing and bursting.

And that wasn’t all. City folks who have city water and sewer services may wonder why we’re even making such a big deal about losing power. But out here in the middle of nowhere, losing power means losing everything. Our friend Ben and Silence naively thought we had it made when we bought Hawk’s Haven. The property had a well, oil heat, a gas stove, and a septic system. If the power went off, we figured, all we had to do was light some candles, keep the fridge door closed, and wait for it to come back on. How bad could that be?

Plenty bad, as we discovered when an ice storm cut off our power while our friend Cole was visiting one February. It was then that we understood that every single thing in our house was controlled electronically, which meant that no power meant no light, no heat, no water, no computer, no plumbing, no nothing. We couldn’t even take Cole to a hotel to escape our miserable conditions, because the ice had made the roads too hazardous for travel.

This eye-opening incident gave us what our friends still tease us is a “survivalist mentality.” But hey, we’d really rather survive, given the alternative. As soon as the ice had cleared, we got a wonderful secondhand catalytic woodstove and had it installed in our living-room fireplace. Our living room doubles as our guest room, since we have a sofabed there; we figured if worse came to worst, we could sleep on the sofabed ourselves while the power was out, continue to feed the woodstove, and huddle under our down comforter, wool blankets, and cotton duvets. We have flannel PJs (yours truly) and “granny gowns” (Silence) for cold nights, and aren’t averse to wearing socks to bed if we must. We keep a cord of split, cured wood under tarps near the house at all times, and always have a supply of dry wood inside next to our woodstove, along with a variety of firestarters.

The next item on our agenda was making sure we had plenty of water. We have spring water delivered monthly for drinking, so we typically have 27 gallons on hand. But we realized we also needed water for tooth-brushing, washing, dishwashing, and flushing, so we started collecting plastic gallon containers and refilling them from the tap as needed. Tip: Don’t use biodegradable jugs for this, because they will degrade, draining water all over your wood floors. Those shiny transparent containers that won’t biodegrade in a thousand lifetimes are the way to go for water storage (as long as you don’t plan to drink the water!). I guess it’s comforting to think that at least they can serve some useful purpose.

Cooking isn’t actually a problem if, like us, you have a gas stove. Even if yours is electronically controlled, like ours, you can still turn on the gas and light the burner with a match, then, once the food is ready, simply turn off the burner (or oven) as usual. (Buy the larger-size wooden kitchen matches so there will be more space between the flame and your fingers.)

Washing the dirty dishes is far more of an issue. This is where a store of paper plates and napkins, plastic utensils, and aluminum-foil pans might come in handy. We know you’d never normally use them, but this is an emergency! And you can always burn or compost the paper and recycle the plastic and aluminum. If you have access to ample quantities of clean water, you can skip the disposables and wash your dishes in an enamel-coated steel dishpan, just like great-Grandma did back in the day. They even say the dirty dishwater is good for your garden.

Getting back to food, here are some tips that can make a big difference if the power goes out: First, have plenty of food on hand that doesn’t need to be heated or refrigerated. A peanut butter and honey sandwich with a sliced apple or banana or a peeled orange or tangerine can go a long way towards establishing normalcy and satisfaction. Hard cheeses will stay good for a very long time at cool to cold room temperature, as will jams and jellies and even butter. Crackers and chips will stay good longer than bread, and many are delicious with peanut butter or cheese. Popcorn cooked in a heavy cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven over a gas flame or on a woodstove and served with melted butter, shredded Parmesan, and apple slices is comfort food at its finest. If you have hummus or veggie dip in your fridge along with pita or naan, baby carrots, celery stalks, and broccoli florets, pull them out and enjoy!

Don’t forget hot drinks. You don’t actually need an electric coffeemaker (or a neighborhood Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts) to enjoy coffee. A ceramic or plastic filter base that fits over your mug, a filter (we like unbleached Melitta filters), some ground coffee, and boiling water are all you need to make coffee by the cup (for pennies a cup, mind you, unlike those bazillion-dollar single-cup machines). Hot tea is even easier: Boil water, pour in teapot or cup with one or more teabags, steep, and serve. We find hot cocoa a bit too thick and rich for our taste, but if you’re a fan, stock up now on the supplies you need to make yourself a warm, comforting cup.

Lots of canned soups are now made to be heat-and-eat. Your microwave may be a non-option in a power failure, but you can still pull the ring on that can and pour it into a pot on your woodstove or gas burner. Baked beans (we love Bush’s Grillin’ Beans) can be eaten cold straight from the can, but can easily be heated up on a gas burner or woodstove. If you have a gas or charcoal grill (and who doesn’t?), you have a way to cook food reliably even when the power fails, as long as you’ve had the sense to get extra supplies like charcoal, propane tanks, etc.

Here’s a tip that may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but we think it could be a lifesaver for newbies to natural disasters: Eat your most perishable foods first. If you have raw ground beef in your fridge, make burgers, sloppy joes, spaghetti with meat sauce, or your favorite immediately, and eat it immediately. Ditto for hard-boiled eggs, coleslaw or other mayonnaise-based salads, and egg and pasta salads.

If you have salad greens that won’t last a day without electricity, make a big salad and eat it at every meal. (Make everyone dress only the bowl they’re eating; dressing, oil and vinegar, and oily veggies like olives, will break down salad greens overnight, so rather than putting them on the whole salad, have diners add just the amount they want to their own bowls. They can always have seconds!)

We wondered what panicked homeowners would consider essentials after last October’s disastrous freak snowstorm, but quickly discovered, around here, at least, that everyone appeared to be on the same page. The shelves had been stripped of battery-operated lanterns, water, and bread.

We’ve never used kerosene or oil lamps, and don’t think a freak storm is an especially good time to master the basics of oil-burning lanterns. Candles are easy, but they’re not exactly bright. Even the long-burning, three-wick emergency candles are pretty dim. Instead, we use battery-operated lanterns to supply light when the power goes out.

Silence and I have a pair of Coleman battery lanterns that take 4 D-batteries each and last a long time. Each fall, we make sure the lanterns are still lighting at the push of a button (otherwise, we’d replace the batteries). We clean the bulbs and white plastic shades. Our faithful lanterns provide enough light to see us safely to the bathroom and back when the power fails at night, or to cook by, if Silence uses both lanterns. But we have to admit that they’re pretty dim.

In the wake of the oncoming Frankenstorm, we thought a few more lanterns might be in order. But by the time we began hitting our local hardware stores yesterday, we were way behind the curve. Store after store informed us that all the battery-operated lanterns had been snapped up.

Silence finally found a 24-LED light bar for $13 that operated on three (included) AAA batteries. It could hang from a hook, but Silence had an idea to allow us to use its ultra-bright light for our bedtime reading: Set the light bar on one of those folding triangular wood frames that let you display plates, paintings, and etc. We have a couple sitting around, and Silence was right: They were perfect.   

Our local grocery was also out of bread (fortunately, we’d already loaded up on that) and, surprisingly, water. There was not a single gallon jug of water to be seen. The store employees were dumbfounded, but after last year’s power outage, our friend Ben and Silence weren’t surprised that our neighbors had also understood what having a septic system meant in terms of being able to flush when the power went out. (Not to mention having clean water for drinking, brushing one’s teeth, giving to your pets, bathing, etc.) Fortunately, they swear a truck full of water jugs will be arriving at 9 p.m. tonight; you can bet we’ll be there first thing in the morning.

What else? Vitamins, OTC meds like aspirin and Benadryl, first-aid kits with plenty of bandages and antibiotic cream. Pet food. Layers of clothing and blankets. The dual security of land lines and cell phones; if one goes out, the other most likely won’t. Lots of reading, writing, knitting, cooking, and other low-tech recreational activities to enjoy while your power is off and you’re trapped at home. (Napping gets extra points here, too.) And make sure you know your neighbors—and they know you—and you have their phone and e-mail addresses. It could save your life, or theirs.

Now is the time to follow the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” Every step you take could save your life, or at least make your family more comfortable as you weather the coming crisis.


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