What a power outage taught me about emergency preparedness

When the lights flickered off late on the night before Thanksgiving last November, I didn’t think much of it at first. I was already in bed and thought that the power would be turned back on, as it was in most outages, before the morning. I woke up in complete darkness several hours later and knew we were in much bigger trouble.

In a belated text notification, I learned that the power company that serves my area had cut the electricity off to prevent a wildfire. It was bone-dry and strong Santa Ana winds were in the forecast. The elevated danger of a massive wildfire made it necessary for them to shut down the grid proactively, so downed power lines couldn’t ignite a fire.

The next 24 hours tested my “survival” skills in a typical American suburban home, in which nearly everything required electricity to operate. The freezer-refrigerator turned into a big room-temperature storage box, in which my turkey — dressed and ready to be popped into the oven — rotted away. The gas stove in my kitchen was ignited with electricity, but luckily I remembered how I used to light old-fashioned gas equipment with a match in my childhood. To prepare for another dark night, I washed and brought in the solar lights that usually illuminated my backyard. I used my laptop as a power bank to keep my cell phone charged, so I had at least one means of communication.

The worst part was not knowing when the power would be restored. I can’t describe the relief I felt when, all of a sudden, the lights came back on in the middle of the night.

This unnerving experience made me think, like nothing else had ever done, about my total dependence on the system that supplied the necessities of life. I realized that it was not a question of if, but when a power outage or other kind of emergency would happen again.

When I started looking into how to prepare for the inevitable, I quickly discovered that there were a whole lot of people out there who shared my concerns and posted thousands of comments online about their experiences of lengthy and frequent power outages due to wildfires, thunderstorms, floods, blizzards and other extreme weather conditions. If the forces of nature were the direct cause of their predicament, many accused power companies and government regulators of exacerbating the problem with their greed, corruption, and/or simple lack of care.

The real problem is, however, that we might not even understand how the system works at all. Throughout the Thanksgiving power outage, I read dozens of comments on the internet with contradictory information about who in fact made the decision to cut power and who had the authority to restore it. Was it the power company, as many believed, that was trying to avoid costly lawsuits after its downed power line caused a wildfire? Was it the inflexible government regulations that made the power company shut down the grid against their will? Was it the inaccurate weather forecast that triggered the unnecessary shutdown?

Or does it really matter? We are all at the mercy of this ungainly, overly complicated system, which critics often refer to as “the grid.” In a literal sense, it refers to the network of equipment that delivers power to homes and businesses; figuratively, though, it is shorthand for a leviathan so enormous that we have little hope of comprehending it, let alone controlling it.

The sense of insecurity induced by the grid can be fully remedied only by going off of it — not a realistic option for most. Instead, people quell their anxiety by reducing dependency and preparing for a looming emergency. A mind-numbing range of “off-grid” products promise to help us achieve a measure of independence when the unreliable supply system inevitably fails. Emergency power supply (EPS) is a big one, from a $300 unit compact enough to throw in a backpack, to a solar generator that can power large appliances with a $2,000 price tag. Online vendors recommend a three-month supply of emergency survival food with 25-year shelf life, which will run somewhere in the vicinity of $800 to $900 per person — or play it real smart and go for a whole year’s supply for $3,000. Emergency preparedness is now a big business itself.

These off-grid products specifically target a new customer base — not the old-fashioned survivalists — with constant reference to the comforts of modern life: running a coffeemaker in the morning, checking work email during a camping trip, quality freeze-dried meals in a pouch tasty enough to make a quick lunch on any ordinary day. It is not so much about actually going off the grid or living independently in the wilderness, but the possibility of it that lures customers, including myself, who have lost faith in the system and yet, must stay plugged in to maintain the comfortable lifestyle enabled by it.

So here I am, on the first few months of my off-grid journey. I’m stocking up on staples and started a small vegetable garden in the backyard. After debating for months, I ordered a rather expensive backup power supply; now I am trying to decide between mouth-watering options of emergency survival food. I have no illusions that these modest preparations will protect me from catastrophic events, but it makes me feel a little bit better to know that my cat and I will survive the next time there’s a power outage.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.