Power Outages Dealing with the Dark

Northeasterners are a tough breed, but even they have to deal with dark days and nights—and they need an action plan in case of a blackout. This was evidenced by the blackout of 2003. In August of that year, a series of power failures overloaded the grid distributing electricity to the entire Northeastern United States, tripping circuit breakers at generating stations all the way to Canada, and triggering the largest blackout in the United States history. Though power was restored to much of the affected area within a day or so, millions of dollars in losses and damages were incurred, and serious questions arose about the state of the power grid serving that part of the country. As a result of the blackout, there were about 3,000 fire calls—most from candle use—and there were 80,000 emergency calls in New York City—more than double the average. 

Fast-forward to 2012, and Superstorm Sandy struck the region, knocking out electricity and water for millions of buildings and homes up and down the coast. More than 23,000 people sought refuge in temporary shelters, and more than 8 ½ million people lost power. 

The storm severely damaged or destroyed about 100,000 homes on Long Island. The impact of Sandy was much more drawn-out than the blackout of 2003—a week after the hurricane hit, more than 600,000 people in New York were still without power.

Know the Drill 

While events like these may not be controllable, having a clear, well-rehearsed emergency management plan for power outages in one’s condo is something every board can and should do. “We encourage building management to be proactive in educating their residents about what their plans are in an emergency, and about what their action plans will be,” says Ira Tannenbaum, assistant commissioner for public/private initiatives for the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM). “Power outages aren’t always forecast, so it’s not easy to put up a notification to tell people when the outage will be.”

Therefore, Tannenbaum says, the management needs to notify the building ahead of time about what they should do. This should include letting people know that there will be a building representative in the lobby who will answer questions. Residents should also be aware of which areas of the building that should be avoided due to emergency operations or hazards during a blackout, he says.

“These are important steps to take in advance,” Tannenbaum says. Someone in the building should also be in charge of reporting the outage to the electrical company, so that the technicians can start working on the repair immediately. It’s easier to do this if the board has the pertinent contact information in their phones, rather than having to fish around for it in the dark.

Most electrical companies and municipal utilities have apps now, which allow anyone to report outages from their phones, and receive notification via their phones as soon as the juice is restored. 

Needful Things

Everyone in the building should also be personally prepared in his or her own units as well, says Peter Judge, who is a public information officer with the emergency management office in Massachusetts. He suggests that everyone keep flashlights, bottled water and a portable radio with extra batteries in a close, easily accessible spot within their homes. “You can keep on top of the event, and find out whether it’s a localized event—or whether it’s the Northeast blackout,” Judge says. Also, the radio will help people find a local cooling or warming shelter if necessary, he says. Charging electronics becomes difficult in long-term blackout situations, but Judge says that solar powered or hand-cranked chargers can be used to charge phones and electronics—as well as car chargers. 

There are other recommendations for putting together a blackout kit in Ready, a national PSA campaign launched by the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA in 2004. the PSA was designed to educate and empower Americans to prepare for and respond to emergencies, both natural and man-made. 

In addition to the fundamentals on Judge’s list, Ready suggests that residents have enough of any essential items—such as medications—to hold them for three to five days, or longer, if responders can’t reach them. Kits should also include plastic containers filled with water that should be placed in the refrigerator and freezer. They should each have an inch of space inside because water expands as it freezes. According to Ready, the chilled or frozen water will help keep food cold.

Those with disabilities need to take this one step further, taking a close inventory of what they need on a daily basis to stay safe and healthy—such as diabetic supplies, hearing aid batteries, and necessary supplies for any service animals they have. Residents who use assistive technology will also need to have extra batteries on hand for those devices, or plan alternate ways to charge them.

Homemade Juice

While a backup generator can ease the discomfort and inconvenience of a major power outage—particularly for those residents less able to evacuate,  or who rely more heavily on support technology—not many communities can foot the cost of a generator, which can cost upwards of $1 million for one big enough to power a mid-rise building.

“If they cannot afford fixed generators, then they should buy at least one portable generator,” suggests Peter Grech, a resident manager and education director for the Superintendents’ Technical Association of New York. “This generator can be located by the front of the building, and can supply power to portable lights in the lobby by the front desk and outside the building.”

The generator can also be used to charge walkie-talkies as well as cellphones, Grech says. A second medium-sized portable generator can be used on the roof to supply lights connected by an extension cord for at least one stairwell. 

He also suggests that extra flashlights be kept at the front desk, along with rechargeable batteries for them. “Training for the staff would include portable generator use and hanging temporary lights using extension cords,” he adds.

Security and Frozen Peas

According to Tannenbaum, an addition to dealing with the lights, buildings will also have to reckon with potential security issues. Depending on the nature of the security system – and whether or not there are battery backups—entire buildings could find themselves without security should the electricity go down. “The reality is that a residence should think about the various ways that they are dependent on power, and plan accordingly,” he says. 

For example, Tannenbaum says, if the building has a single doorman who is responsible for monitoring the cameras to the back and front entrance—or to multiple locations—then they might have to identify staff who would have to be in those locations physically should the electricity go out, because the cameras might not be working. “These are all things that they need to think about in advance, and communicate to the residents, so that they know that the building is taking these issues seriously,” he says.

Looters are also a possibility, but when massive blackouts occur, people tend to stick together and help each other out, however, says Paul Rudewick, CEO of Optimal Facility Management Solutions, LLC, an energy risk management and consulting firm.

He resided in New York on 55th Street and Broadway when the big blackout of 2003 occurred. 

“The city is pretty respectful, and everyone comes together,” he says. “There was no chaos, no looting. It was a coordinated, respectful, ‘Let’s all work through this issue until the lights get back on.’ ”

His biggest issue had to do with his food. While it may have lasted a day or two in the fridge or freezer left untouched, Rudewick’s roommates had other ideas. They opened the freezer and peered inside, seeing what there was to eat. “After opening it, you let all the cold air out, and we had to toss everything from the freezer,” he says. “One thing that you may want to consider is keeping your freezer and fridge closed. It’s highly likely that your fridge and freezer are okay if you haven’t opened them.”

Food should stay frozen for 36-48 hours in a fully loaded freezer with the door closed, while a half-full freezer will keep food frozen for 24 hours. Refrigerated items such as milk, meat, fish, eggs and spoilable leftovers should be moved into a cooler surrounded by ice, according to the Edison Electric Institute.

More Concerns

There are bigger issues than having food rot during a blackout, however. One of the biggest is the elevator – especially in a high-rise.

After Hurricane Sandy occurred, FEMA recommended that all high-rise buildings containing elevators and conveyance system components see to it that those components are protected sufficiently in order to restore the elevator service as quickly as possible. This can be done by moving the elevator equipment such as the electrical controls and hydraulic pumps above the DFA. If it has to be located below, in the elevator pit, it needs to be protected using floor damage resistant components, FEMA recommended. 

According to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), another thing that residents need to remember to do is to turn off all their appliances except for a single lamp so that they know when power has been restored. That way, they can avoid a circuit overload and another outage that can result when power is restored to all appliances at once. 

Electric companies typically make sure that power isn’t flowing through downed lines before restoring electrical service after a power outage to prevent injuries and fires, according to the EEI. Then, they usually repair transmission lines and distribution substations because these are the most important lines, as they carry power from generating plants to the large number of customers over wide communities.

After those lines return, the electric companies restore power to places like hospitals, police departments and fire departments. Finally, they restore service to the remainder of the communities beginning with large apartment buildings followed by single residences and small groups of customers, according to the Edison Electric Institute. Once that's accomplished, Northeasterners will live to see the light of another day.

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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