In late September of 1985, I cautiously trudged through cold river water in darkness to check on a family boat. The tide had risen about a foot or so above the dock. As my dim flashlight reflected off the water and back onto my face and sharp pellets of rain made me squint, it was hard to decipher where the dock ended and the deeper water began. Hurricane Gloria was off the coast and she made her presence known. She left millions without power.
In the winter of 1994, I lived in a small farmhouse with a kerosene heater. This type of heating ended up being a godsend because we were without electric for five days, but we were warm. It was so cold, we moved the contents of our refrigerator and freezer outside into a cooler and the food kept well. We used an outside grill to cook, but we mostly ate cold sandwiches. This was the now famous ice storm of 1994.
Hurricane Isabel had a significant impact on the Eastern Shore in 2002. Again, I found myself checking on the family boat. This time, I remembered Gloria and decided I’d wait until the storm had passed. The water was five feet over the dock this time. The resulting power outage for the state of Maryland was over a million people. (See link below)
When Tropical Storm Isaias visited us in early August, its eye came right over the top of my house in Trappe. I had never been in the eye of such a storm and was honored to be privy to this surreal experience. In an instant, the strong rains stopped so abruptly that it drew my attention to the sudden light that pierced my office windows. I wandered outside acutely aware of the pounding rain and unforgiving winds just moments prior. The brilliant ultramarine sky above was flanked on all sides by a gradient gray, and, in those few quiet moments, I felt as if I was in a utopian bubble. With hesitant strides through my yard, I took in the scenery – two Monarchs drunkenly danced together above my butterfly garden without a sound. The silence was stark. The quiet was severed by crows cawing and the deep calls of bullfrogs billowing out their songs. Back and forth the noise streaked from north to south and back again with an intensity and a pattern I had never heard before. Struck with the power of this cacophony, I raced upstairs and woke my boys up by opening up their bedroom windows. “What is that noise?” They questioned with hands protecting their eyes from the intense light. “It’s frogs and crows, I think.” It was almost an echo – except it wasn’t. It ended as quickly as a page ripped from a Jules Verne novel. And then the power went out, almost as if by design.
What do you do when the power goes out? I often find myself confused, I wander the house at first checking things and then always end up in the kitchen staring at the fridge. I wonder “how long will it be?” and I think about how long I can go without opening the door. I’ll inevitably do something silly like try to turn on a light or the television and when it doesn’t respond, I’ll whisper “duh,” under my breath.
The more dependent we are on electricity, the more we feel its absence. When the electric does go out, I often ask myself, “Am I too pampered? Do I need all these electric gadgets?” Lately, I’ve been asking myself these questions often as more and more we have experienced power disruptions due to severe storms. When the humming of my appliances stops, it’s the quiet that allows me to think of how muted life must have been before electricity. On the flip side, I also contemplate how hard it must have been to cook and keep food from spoiling.
There is a handy website I found to help me better understand the effects of severe storms on our power supply. It is called the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit and it was developed over a six-month period by a partnership of federal agencies and organizations led by NOAA. Initially launched on November 17, 2014, a mobile-friendly design was launched in July 2016. (see link below) The goal of this website is to improve people’s ability to understand and manage their climate-related risks and opportunities, and to help them make their communities and businesses more resilient to extreme events. According to this website, “Extreme weather events are the main cause of power outages and a constant hazard to the nation’s energy system. Due to climate change, future extreme events that can cause power outages are projected to be more frequent and last longer.”
I bring this up because in the long term, climate change will affect our food supply and in the short term, it will affect our ability to store and prepare food safely. For the brevity of this article, I will tackle the short-term consequences and what you can do to prepare your kitchen for the eventuality of a power outage. With our local emergency response teams stretched thin, anything we can do as individuals to prepare ourselves for dark days lessons the burden on rescue services.
First, prepare your pantry. Start with assessing the kind of foods you have on hand. Do you have shelf stable food in your pantry like canned and or packaged/boxed goods? Here are some suggestions: canned soups, canned meats (tuna, ham, chicken), canned vegetables and fruits, canned beans, peanut, nut or soy butter, rice (minute rice requires less energy to prepare), pasta, canned pasta sauce, dried fruits, crackers, cereal and powdered milk, oatmeal, honey, and granola bars. I always keep a few loaves of bread in the freezer, they thaw quickly and are a great staple. Many of the items listed require water and if you are on well water or even municipal water it may not come out of your faucet without electricity. Keeping several gallons of water for cooking/drinking/boiling is best. The general rule is one gallon of water per person per day for a minimum of three days. I also like to keep an extra gallon to heat and use for cleaning countertops and such.
Next, I would think about fuel options for cooking. If you have a gas stove, check the manual for lighting instructions. If you have an electric stove, you might want to consider having another form of energy available. When the weather clears and there is still no electric, there are a few great options to use outside: Portable gas stoves use small portable propane tanks. Butane burners are usually single burners that use a butane canister. Outdoor grills can be pretty handy, just make sure you have extra propane or charcoal on hand for such an occasion, a fire pit is a great place to use a dutch oven or to break out the hot dog sticks, and, finally, a solar oven is a great option when skies are blue and winds are calm. Spend a few minutes to learn about carbon monoxide poisoning in relation to cooking fuels and generators. (See link below)
A few more kitchen essentials include matches and/or a lighter, a non-electric can opener, disposable plates and cups, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. A few tips: to keep your refrigerator colder, longer – don’t open it unless necessary. Keep a bag of ice or two in your freezer and some ice packs as these can be used to keep items cold in a cooler. If it’s going to be a while before the power is back on, use up items as they thaw. Food safety during a power outage is essential and a food thermometer and refrigerator thermometer will help you determine if your food is safe to eat. (See link below)
If all of this talk of no electricity has you down…did you know that almost a billion people around the world cook without electricity? One way to help us better understand our energy hungry world is to look at data, easily accessed from the International Energy Agency website. The IEA was created in 1974 due to the oil crisis, but since has evolved. (see link below)
Another eye oping statistic: 2.6 billion people lack access to clean cooking facilities worldwide, relying instead on biomass, coal or kerosene as their primary cooking fuel. That’s 30% of the people on earth that lack clean cooking facilities. This makes me feel pretty darn lucky that I have a clean working stove, and fairly reliable energy to cook with. This statistic also makes me feel like I have nothing to complain about – even when the power does go out.
Consider preparing beyond the kitchen to include such items as ready to go flashlights and first aid kits. The Red Cross and U.S government both have websites that will help your family develop an emergency plan. (see link below). In the short term, we may have a reprieve from time to time from storms, just like I had with my extraordinary moment in the eye of Isaias, but it was just a moment. Realistically, the storms will keep coming. Whether they be a tropical storm, hurricane, nor’easter, tornado, blizzard, snowstorm, ice storm, or a severe thunderstorm, we will continue to be impacted by storms.
I have a friend in California that is surrounded by wildfires. I received this text from her the other day: “So after 15 years of thinking and talking about emergency lists and plans and crap, I finally got my act together and did it. I have a plan in place, a list for each of us, can get the car packed in 30 minutes or less. But I’m still hoping that it all passes us by…” I hope it will pass her by, too. I did text her back with a quote from Louis Pasteur, the famous French chemist: “Luck favors the prepared.”
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit
Food Safety During a Power Outage
Learn How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Making An Emergency Plan
Data on Access to Clean Energy and Cooking
Remembering Hurricane Isabel