When the Electric Power Fails
“ELECTRIC Power Failure Grips Country!” Such a headline becomes ever more a likelihood as the energy crisis deepens. What a prolonged power failure could mean to such large cities as New York, London, Paris, Rome and Tokyo is terrifying even to imagine. Yet the prospect of electric power failures is daily becoming more and more a real probability.
Just what it means for communities to be without electrical energy for even a few days the New York Times of December 19, 1973, told under the heading “Many in Tristate Area Lack Heat, Light and Phones.” This was caused by a snowstorm and freezing rain in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The freezing rain played havoc with thousands of trees and power lines. As a result, 450,000 homes were cut off from electricity, whether for a short time or for days. The Times report said that after two days there were still 70,000 homes without electricity and 3,000 homes without telephones. In one Connecticut “disaster area” no lights at all were visible anywhere. Families with fireplaces opened their homes to neighbors without heat, used candles for light, and boiled water and cooked food with the wood plucked from the debris of the storm. Communities transformed town halls, firehouses and churches into refuge centers.
Previous Power Failures
On November 9, 1965, people living in the northeastern part of the United States and adjoining Canada had another small taste of what total electric power failure can mean. On that occasion their power went off in various cities from one and a half to thirteen and a half hours. That notable blackout covered some 80,000 square miles and reached from Buffalo on the west to Cape Cod on the east, and from as far south as New York city to as far north as some 350 miles above Toronto, Canada. About thirty million persons were affected.
Of course, where it was felt the most was where the buildings were the highest and the population the most concentrated. People were stranded for hours in trapped elevators and in subway cars, in railroad stations and airports. Those seldom using stairs suddenly found themselves walking down some forty flights with the aid of light from matches or candles. In many places there was neither water to drink nor water to flush the toilets. Streets as well as homes, office buildings and other places of business were dark.
Also, in the summer of 1972 the United States experienced a serious electric power shortage, due to the heat and an unprecedented demand for electricity to run air-conditioners. A number of sections in the eastern part of the country experienced power failures, some of which became quite costly because of food spoilage in butcher shops, grocery stores and private homes.
A Home Blackout
Of course, the most common type of blackout is when a fuse is blown or an electric circuit breaker is tripped in a private home. Each householder usually knows where these are. But people living in apartments or boardinghouses may find that these are located somewhere outside their own apartment or room.
Where circuit breakers are used, it is merely a matter of resetting the breaker that has been tripped. As for a blown fuse, it, too, can easily be spotted, because its window is darker or clouded, or one might see broken or melted elements through its window.
Extra fuses should always be on hand and care should be exercised to have fuses with the right rating; for homes this generally is fifteen or twenty amperes. As a precaution, it is important to turn off the appliance that caused the fuse to blow or, in other ways, to cut down the load before replacing the fuse in order to avoid trouble. For safety’s sake, use only one hand in replacing fuses, and if the floor is damp, make it a point to stand on a dry board.
If your fuses blow out repeatedly, you may be able to solve the problem by using more outlets and thus distribute your appliances over more circuits. If that does not solve the problem, the wiring in your home may need to be improved. Of course, the problem could be faulty wiring in an appliance or lamp socket. To check that possibility, turn off all the appliances and lamps. Then proceed to turn on one at a time until the culprit is spotted.
Dealing with Brownouts and Blackouts
A power failure may be a brownout or a blackout. A brownout is the condition where the power is reduced by the power company so that your lights do not glow as brightly as usual; this is one way the power companies have of stretching the power. If they reduce it by just 3 to 5 percent you will not notice it, but when it is reduced 8 percent or more you most likely will. Such a reduction does no harm to lamps or to heating appliances, such as toasters, electric frying pans and ovens. But where motors are involved, as in refrigerators and air-conditioners, a marked decrease in power can result in overheating, ruining the motor. So in a brownout, watch your motors, and if they start to overheat, turn them off, at least temporarily.
As the facts show, a total power failure can occur almost any time, if not due to fuel shortage, then due to storms or accidents that knock down power lines. If this occurs, what should you do? First, and most important: Do not panic. Remain calm. Many New Yorkers did well in this regard in the 1965 blackout, showing a sense of humor and taking things in stride. That, together with fortunate circumstances, prevented what otherwise would have been a major disaster.
Preparation ahead of time is helpful in coping with such a problem. For example, you may want to have in your home safety matches and heavy-duty candles, as well as flashlights together with fresh batteries. Some persons also have a battery-operated radio so that they can learn from news broadcasts the cause of the blackout and how long it is likely to last.
Preparation for such an eventuality as an electric power failure includes mental awareness as to what it may involve. Not only will you be unable to use your electric appliances, but your phone may be dead, your thermostats will not work nor your furnace, if it is an oil burner. If you live in a highrise apartment building, soon you will have no water, nor will you be able to flush the toilet. So as soon as the power fails, make it a point to get a supply of water in pots and pans for drinking. If the water turns out to be polluted, then either boil the water, if you can, or chlorinate it with some such compound as halazone.
Food also is something to think about, especially if the blackout lasts more than a few hours. For such a short-term emergency a modest supply of some foods that do not require cooking or heating, such as dry cereals, nuts, dried fruits, canned or powdered milk, can prove helpful. There is such a thing as canned heat, and some persons keep a few cans of it on hand in case of an emergency.
As a rule, perishable foods will keep in a refrigerator from thirty-six to forty-eight hours, but that all depends upon how fresh the food was when the power went off. As for frozen meats, these, we are assured, can be refrozen if they were not unfrozen too long. But when eventually using them, it would be well to examine them carefully to make sure they are still edible. As regards all such foods, the rule would apply: When in doubt, throw it out!
Of course, elevators or “lifts” will not run without electricity. If you get caught in an elevator when the power goes off, do not panic. Elevators have safety devices to prevent them from falling in case of a power failure. They also have vents that can be opened for ventilation. True, the temperature may rise, making it uncomfortable, but you need not fear; you will not suffocate.
You will need to be careful about using your auto. If you have it parked in some elevated garage, forget about it until the power comes on again. If you are able to use it, remember that the traffic lights will not be working. Also, most likely, neither will gasoline station pumps, so be sure your supply will get you to your destination.
Depending upon the season of the year, it might be best simply to go to bed in order to keep warm and conserve your own energy by getting all the rest you can, especially if food is in short supply. Of course, if a major disaster has struck your area and your apartment or city is being evacuated, then do not delay in fleeing with the rest.
A word of caution. In these critical times there has been a high rise in crime. So take no chances. Keep off dark streets if a blackout occurs. As the Bible says, people who do bad things love the darkness.—John 3:19-21.
In brief, if the power fails, do not panic, keep your senses, remain calm, be cautious, be resourceful, making the best of the circumstances.