What happens when the electricity goes out in a nighttime quake?

It is not unusual for earthquakes and other disasters to cause widespread power outages. The earthquake that hit Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures in mid-March this year, with tremors of upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7, caused a massive power outage in the Tokyo metropolitan area in the middle of the night. Since lives and health could be severely affected, it is crucial to be prepared for power outages before they occur. The following fictitious story illustrates the measures to take in advance and the key points to act upon in the event of a power outage.

Pitch-black room

— Confirm location of light source

During a day off in early summer, Taro, 38, was in his apartment, sitting on the sofa after dinner with his wife Hanako, 38, and their 5-year-old daughter. They were relaxing while watching the news on TV.

Suddenly, the TV and his smartphone started beeping with alarms warning of an earthquake. The announcer began reporting on the earthquake and urged people to protect themselves against a possible big tremor.

At the same time, the apartment building began to shake. Taro shouted, “Get under the table!” and the three hid under the dining table. During the shaking, the lights went out and the room went dark.

The tremors subsided, but the lights did not come back on. The area around the apartment also became completely dark. The earthquake seemed to have caused a widespread power outage.

“We bought an LED lantern when we went camping, didn’t we? Please get it — I feel uneasy without any light,” Hanako said. Their daughter, scared of the blackout, began crying and clung to Hanako.

Taro could not immediately remember where he had put the lantern. “I think I put it in the closet in the bedroom,” he said. Using the flash light function on his smartphone, to illuminate a small area, he started to search for the lantern.

Smartphone battery growing weaker

— Prepare rechargeable batteries

As he walked around the house using the smartphone light, Taro found plates and glassware had fallen from the cupboards and broken on the floor in the kitchen. The bookshelf in the study had fallen over, and books and documents were scattered on the floor. Everything in the house was a mess.

“I’m worried I could hurt my feet. I should have worn slippers,” he thought as he walked through the mess, looking for the lantern. “I wonder where I put it in the closet.”

He regretted not putting all of his emergency supplies together in a readily accessible place. At last, he managed to find the lantern.

“Having a light makes us feel a bit safer,” Hanako said. She and their daughter looked relieved.

While Taro checked disaster information on his smartphone, an alert popped up telling him that the battery was running low.

He remembered that he had noticed the battery was running low, but had put off charging it, thinking he could do it when he went to bed.

A smartphone is one of the most important tools in a disaster, as it provides a variety of information and can be used to make contact. As Taro was not able to use his smartphone, he did not have any idea of when the power might be restored.

He had left his rechargeable mobile battery at work. He wondered how long the battery would last.

Air conditioner not working

— Be wary of heatstroke

Taro checked the surrounding area from the balcony. There was no sign of fire nearby. The sea and rivers are far away, he thought, so there’s no tsunami threat. He could see people who had started evacuating with flashlights, but there did not seem to be any traffic lights working around his apartment.

“It’s dark outside, and it would be too dangerous to evacuate with our child. I think we should stay at home until it gets light outside,” he told Hanako.

They decided to spend the night at home instead of going to an evacuation shelter. They moved to a place in the house where there was no major damage, and decided to sleep.

However, it gradually became hot and humid. With the power out, the air conditioner was not working.

Their daughter complained, “It’s too hot to sleep.” It was so humid and uncomfortable in the room. All they could do was to open the windows, fan the air and keep drinking water to prevent heatstroke.

Taro’s father, living 20 minutes away by train, was receiving oxygen therapy at home for lung problems. The oxygen was supplied by a machine via a tube, but if the power stayed off, the machine would probably stop working. Taro thought about calling to check on him, but his phone battery was running low. He wondered if his father would remember what to do in the event of a power outage. He was getting increasingly worried.

Check medical equipment used at home

With the expansion of home medical care, an increasing number of disabled and elderly people are living at home with medical equipment that requires constant electricity, such as ventilators and oxygen concentrators. Thus, a power outage can be life-threatening.

Tomi Sato, a senior official of Secom Medical System Co.’s visiting nurse station, said: “Electricity is a lifeline for people receiving home medical care. It is too late to take action after a power outage has occurred. It is important to prepare and ensure that everything is in place in advance.”

For patients for whom the failure of medical equipment could be life-threatening, manufacturers and suppliers take care to explain power outage countermeasures when the equipment is installed.

“It is also important to check how the equipment operates during a power outage when the contractor comes to inspect it, and have them show you how it actually works,” Sato said. Patients should also be aware of how long the batteries and other equipment will last.

Other than medical equipment, if patients use electric beds, air mattresses or other items that run on electricity, it is necessary to inquire with the manufacturers and care managers about how to handle them in the event of a power outage.

“It is safer to have an emergency power source such as a generator or household storage batteries at home,” she said.

These days, some local governments subsidize the purchase of generators and other equipment.

Keep an LED lantern or flashlight in a readily accessible location in the room where patients are recuperating. Luminous tape should be affixed to necessary equipment and devices so that they can be located even in the dark.

“Once a month, set aside a day in the home to confirm how to handle equipment in the event of a disaster. If you have any concerns at that time, please consult with a visiting nurse or other health care professional,” Sato said.