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Life without Electricity: Emergency Power After the Storm

Updated on February 13, 2013
Weeks or even days without electricity can have devastating consequences.
Weeks or even days without electricity can have devastating consequences. | Source

When Hurricane Sandy devastated the East coast in late 2012, only about 3 percent of homes in the U.S. had standby generators. In fact, one hardware store in New Jersey reported that close to 10,000 people called inquiring about generators in the days before the storm hit (they had 20 in stock). When a building loses power because of a storm, whether it's a private home or a major institution like a hospital, it threatens the livelihood of anyone inside. While emergency generators are often lifesavers, they aren't invulnerable either, which makes you wonder what you would do if you had to go days or weeks without electricity of your own.

The Role of the Emergency Generators

While most private homes don't have emergency generators, they're commonplace in buildings that can't afford to lose power, like hospitals. These on-site generators are always hooked up and ready for action, and most times, they automatically detect a power failure so that they click on within seconds.

When Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East coast—including New York City—millions lost power, and in some cases, for the next several weeks. Notably, multiple New York hospitals lost power. When that typically happens, the backup generators kick on, but in the midst of this particularly devastating storm, even the backups failed, necessitating daring mid-storm evacuations of bedridden patients through darkened stairwells. So what happened?

Typically, emergency generators are tucked away someplace where they won't be directly affected by flooding. Some of the infrastructure, though, remains in the building's basement—and if you've ever had a leaky basement during a storm, you know how quickly it can flood. Sandy was strong enough to wipe out in-house generators, which meant that portable units had to be brought in to get the power back on.

Portable Power—for Some

During emergency situations like the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, portable generators were brought in from all over the country to aid people that were powerless—literally. Rental diesel generators and portable boilers were a hot commodity, being shipped in and used to power buildings like hospitals and the Empire State Building.

Of course, not all of the millions of people without power were able to get the hookup (so to speak) from a portable generator. And while generators were able to power public emergency care tents supplying heat, fresh water and electricity, that still left many homeowners, apartment-dwellers and private businesses lacking the juice they needed to keep going. So how do those people cope?

In the aftermath of a storm, even preparedness only goes so far. For example, people with their own emergency generators may find themselves quickly depleting their gasoline supplies, as fuel may be rationed in the aftermath of the disaster. People without power, be it their typical electricity or a fuel-powered generator, are often temporarily displaced from their homes because of extreme heat and cold, decay and a lack of running water. And in our increasingly digital world, many people find themselves struggling to stay connected to the outside world without the opportunity to charge their laptops, cell phones and other mobile devices.

Going without emergency power after a storm or hurricane isn't just a temporary problem, either—you can't just leave the property the way it is and return when the lights come back on. If you do, you may find the condition of your home even worse than it was when you left. For example, if drywall and other construction materials are saturated, they can grow dangerous mold spores and have to be torn down and replaced. If you can dry these materials within 72 hours, the risk is significantly reduced, but it may require power from a fan to facilitate the drying process. As you can see, restoring power after a storm is something that has to happen quickly, or the consequences can be severe.

Being Prepared

Whether you live alone or manage a private business, you have to be prepared for the worst before the worst is knocking on your door—you don't want to be one of those 10,000 people calling the hardware store the day before a hurricane! While storms like Sandy are thankfully few and far between, that doesn't make their lasting effects any less horrible, even to the people that stock their homes with batteries and candles. Emergency generators are easily one of the most overlooked aspects of disaster preparedness, yet their benefits can save your home or business from devastation. Whether you purchase a backup to keep on hand or you make arrangements with a portable generator rental company, you need to be ready—and don't forget the gasoline and bottled water, either!

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    • AlanMalmcom profile image
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      Alan Malmcom 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Thank you!

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 4 years ago from Australia

      Your example is another reason why people should be investing in some basic solar technology. A natural disaster could wipe out many homes in our area but there would still be a few of us with lights on in our homes and the resources to charge everyone's phones and batteries. :)

    • AlanMalmcom profile image
      Author

      Alan Malmcom 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      You're right—solar technology is probably going to drastically change the face of energy consumption and disaster preparedness over the next 10 or 20 years. As the technology for harnessing solar power becomes more commercially affordable and private citizens are able to invest in significant numbers, hopefully natural disasters won't be quite so, well, disastrous!

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