Blackout: What to Do When the Grid Goes Down

The city outside your window is graveyard silent, and other neighbors in your building are peering from the fire escapes at a completely blackened city. Looking up into the night sky, it’s as if someone just turned on all the stars, and blue/green auroras are swirling in the northern sky, sirens begin to wail off in the distance, and an uneasy chill tells you something isn’t right.

There are no lights, no Internet, no satellite television, and no radio. Only your cell phone can provide you with a drab cone of light. The earth has just been hit with a massive geomagnetic solar storm of a magnitude that the world hasn’t seen since the Carrington Event of 1859. Satellites are tumbling lifelessly in orbit, and power grids and communication networks are failing across the country. The power is not coming back on for a long, long time, so you and the nine million other people packed into a 50-square-mile city setting will have to make do without it. But how?


Despite the power of electricity and all it can do in our modern civilization, the power grid in most major cities is quite a fragile thing. From the thinly strung-out infrastructure of the electrical system to the vulnerable “smart grid” that is being implemented across the country, it wouldn’t take a great deal of effort to bring the whole thing crashing down. Threats such as a malicious cyber attack, the rise in fuel costs, or a simple overloading of the system can bring down the entire grid in seconds—blacking out not just your street, neighborhood or town, but entire states and/or regions of the country, as well. A massive power outage could take weeks or months to restore; meanwhile, our reliance on electricity has stopped us dead in our tracks.

“Threats such as a malicious cyber-attack… can bring down the entire grid in seconds…”


First off, don’t panic. The immediate stillness that washes over a once-buzzing house can be a little disturbing. Check to make sure your main circuit isn’t tripped, and verify with your neighbors that their power is also out. You can guess why it is out, but unless there was a major accident, the odds are good that it will only be out for a few hours to a couple of days at most. Your local power company should notify you—provided it is not battling some catastrophe that is more important than you. With the power out, essential businesses such as government operations, hospitals, and other utilities will need to rely on generators for backup power—if they have them. The rest will  go dark.

The bank, gas station, grocery store, and big-box stores might rely on generators for a while, but most will simply close their doors, being unable to transact business without computers. However, those generators require fuel to run, which will drain the supply for local inhabitants. It won’t take too long for either a mass exodus out of the affected area to occur or for widespread looting and an increase in “survivor crime,” where otherwise law-abiding citizens will commit crimes to fulfill basic needs such as food, water, and medicine. Because you live in the city and rely solely on public transportation, you’re not going anywhere—because the bus and train lines will immediately stop working, and there’s no way you want to walk it out (plus, where would you go?).

You’ll have to make do with what you have. And what you should have is a well-equipped emergency pack that contains a host of gear that will keep you sustained for a long period of time. However, you will have to address a couple of things your emergency pack might not have: food and water.


What Will Happen: First off, don’t open your refrigerator until it is absolutely necessary. Make a mental list (or write it down) of everything you think you have in there and plan your future meals accordingly. Once the fridge’s temperature rises above 40 degrees F, meat, poultry, and seafood have a shelf life of only a couple of hours. This also holds true for soft cheeses, eggs, fresh-cut fruits, creamy dressings, and any dairy products such as milk, sour cream, and baby formula.

After that two-hour mark at 40 degrees or higher, bacteria will start to set in and quickly ruin the food. This same guideline also applies to the freezer. Keep anything that still has ice crystals and feels cold to the touch; but once it is thawed, it is headed downhill quickly. Hard cheeses, such as cheddar, Swiss, and Colby, can withstand an increase in temperature, and they will be safe to eat (just cut off any mold that might grow). Open mayonnaise jars and any jams/jellies should be discarded after about eight hours of temperatures of more than 40 degrees.

What You Can Do: Closely monitor the temperature of your refrigerator. When it approaches that dangerous 40-degree threshold, transfer the expendable foods from the freezer to the refrigerator. Things such as bags of peas and corn, ice packs, ice trays/the machine’s reservoir, frozen pie crusts, Grandma’s fruitcake from last Christmas—anything you might not eat unless you’re desperate—can be placed in the fridge. The frozen foods will begin to thaw and, as they do so, they will help keep the fridge’s essentials—milk, meat, eggs—colder longer.

If it is snowing outside (or it is below freezing), use the snow or make ice to keep the fridge cold instead, treating it as an old-fashioned icebox. Help your refrigerator work as efficiently as possible by pulling it about two feet away from the wall. This will allow for more air to flow around the heat-dissipation coils. Better still, position the fridge so those coils face an open window, where cooler air or a breeze will help keep them from getting too hot.

Meanwhile, you can begin construction of a DIY evaporation cooler called a “zeer.” Take two porous terracotta pots of different diameters and place one inside the other. Fill the space between the two pots with wet sand. Place your food inside the first pot, and cover it with a wet cloth. Place the unit in a cool, dry place, and keep the sand and towel wet.

What You Should Do: With any emergency, preparation is key. In order to prepare for a power outage, fill a dozen or so plastic bottles with water and freeze them. When the power goes out, they will act as ice packs in your fridge to keep your food colder longer. If you have a generator, you should have very little short-term worries. Power up the fridge with the generator, but only let it run long enough to keep the temperature below 40 degrees. Turn it off to save power so the fuel will last longer. Before you need it, invest in a cache of freeze-dried foods that can be stored for a long time and take very little resources to prepare. A good supply of canned goods—fruits, condensed milk, beans, meats—will last a very long time, and with a two- or three-week supply, you might weather the situation just fine. Have a barbecue or camp stove at your service, with plenty of available propane. Better yet: A wood-burning stove or fireplace will help cook most any food. If you’re remotely handy, a solar oven can be made with a pizza box and some tin foil.


What Will Happen: Soon after there is a mammoth, widespread power outage that affects millions of people and great swaths of territory, the water supply will also be affected. Pumps, valves, timers, and substations in your city that provide enough water pressure to keep your faucet running will stop working. This means that you have a very short time to gather as much water as you can. Water is key to every aspect of your survival. Without it, you can’t stay there. Period.

What You Can Do: Stop up the drains of all your bathtubs and fill them until the water stops running. Collect as much water as possible in the shortest time possible. A person needs about a gallon a day, so plan accordingly. If you have gutters on your house, put collection buckets under them in case it rains. String a tarp across your balcony or lay it at an angle on your lawn so rain runoff can collect in a bucket.

If you live in an older-style apartment building, those tanks on top of the buildings are the water supply for the building. Water is pumped up from the ground and stored there, but the interesting part is that most of the old-style tanks are siphoned from the top and fed into the pipes below. As a result, as soon as the pumps stop working, there are still perhaps many thousands of gallons of water in there. Realize that there are dozens of gallons of water around your house or apartment—from the 50 to 70 gallons in the water heater to one or two in the toilet’s reservoir tank. And when your freezer starts to defrost, find a way to capture that water, as well.

What You Should Do: The idea is to have one gallon of water for each person for each day the power is out. In order to stay put as long as possible, you should have a large cache of water available for just such an emergency. Even if you think you don’t have space, there are many options for water storage, from small to large. For example, Water Bricks ( offers stackable, 3.5-gallon containers for storing water. No room? Stack them to create a nightstand and cover them with a cloth.

“The idea is to have one gallon of water for each person for each day the power is out.”

Start collecting cases of water and stash them wherever you can find space—under the bathroom sink, under your bed, etc. Invest in a Water-BOB (, a food-safe plastic bag that can hold up to 100 gallons of water in your bathtub. Construct or have ready a rainwater collection system, and don’t forget to prepare a variety of water filters to clean the water.


What Will Happen: Depending on the type of catastrophe, you might not just be out of electricity. Certain solar activities can disrupt electronic communications, but other kinds, such as an EMP from a solar mass ejection, can completely fry any electronic device. That remote control to your ceiling fan, the coffee maker, your cell phone, your car’s ECU, the elevator?

All toast. And unless you’re a handy electrician, they’re going to stay toast until they’re replaced. That means  you’ll have to time your life around the rising and setting sun if you don’t have the proper gear. What You Can Do: Stumbling around in the dark isn’t going to help your cause, so you’ll have to provide your own sources of electricity. Break out your solar-powered lantern and your dynamo-powered radio. Flashlights take batteries, which will eventually go bad, making the flashlight useless. Save those for special circumstances, keep extra batteries, or have alternative methods of charging. Avoid using candles, because they are fire hazards, but don’t discount lighting up your living room with a fire in the fireplace. Plus, it will keep you warm, and you can boil some water to drink later.

“Those who are unprepared and see in the pitch darkness a white beacon emanating from your house will be drawn to it like moths to a flame.”

What You Should Do: There are several companies offering power packs charged via solar that provide a great source of electricity for a variety of devices. Perhaps the power is out, but your cell service is still operational. Keeping a small, well-maintained generator will provide electricity for most lights and the television (you might still be able to tune in to some OTA programing). Eventually, your generator will run out of fuel (that is, if you have a generator); therefore, you’ll need to rely on other sources of energy for light. Also consider keeping handy a 1,000-watt inverter to connect to your car battery to run/charge small appliances.

Prepare an old-fashioned gas/mantle lantern, but make sure you have plenty of propane and extra mantles. Modern-day oil lamps are a great way to light a space, and the oil will last a lot longer than batteries. Make sure to have enough lamp oil in reserve.


»Most power outage situations are temporary—a couple of days at most. Even in severe natural disasters, such as the blizzards that pound the East Coast, the tornadoes in the Midwest, and the earthquakes in the West, a stricken neighborhood will be more concerned with the natural disaster than that they are without power. At most, in the wake of a hurricane, power will be out for three to four weeks, depending on the severity of the event.

In this case, no amount of work on your part will keep the food in your fridge cold. If you haven’t already eaten it, do so before it goes bad. From here on out, you’ll have to rely on dried foods. Hopefully, you have  large store of these. Society, as it always seems to do, will spiral into chaos as quickly as the food and water run out. Don’t be caught in the maddening melée of the cycle of looting that will, no doubt, spill into your neighborhood.

At first, it will be greed-based looting—electronics and clothing—but then, when they figure out the televisions won’t work and the milk has curdled, they’ll be back for the second round, cleaning out the supermarkets and grocery stores. Avoid getting involved in this, because it will be violent and very dangerous. This is why you prepare. This is why you have lanterns (both kinds), generators and fuel, water, and non-perishable foods on hand. This is why you have learned how to protect yourself, to be aware of the signs of danger, and to take caution in every activity you do from here on out. Eventually, you’ll either have to relocate to a different region, or the power companies will rebuild whatever infrastructures were damaged. Until that time, stay put, and stay safe.


Don’t forget to take into account any medicines you and your family might need—from insulin for diabetics to an  EpiPen for those with severe allergies. Something as basic as a migraine or the flu could prove disastrous. An ample stock of first aid supplies will be necessary, especially if the event that knocked out the power grid was environmental. There will be damage, and the potential for injury will be significantly higher. Any well-stocked, family-sized first aid kit will come complete with the needed gear to fix anything short of a broken bone.

Take your pets into consideration. They will need food and water just as much as your family will, so make sure to have enough for them. Also, there are a few specialized first aid supplies available for dogs and cats that you should keep in your cache.


EcoZoom Versa Rocket Stove
EcoZoom’s Versa rocket stove offers the flexibility to cook with wood, charcoal, or solid biomass fuel in a rugged stove. The insulated combustion chamber forces gases to mix with flames, thereby decreasing harmful emissions while boasting great fuel efficiency. The combustion chamber and top door insulation are lined with a refractory metal to provide ultimate durability.

Both the main combustion chamber door and the damper door (bottom door) have reinforced metal frames with hinges that securely close the doors and regulate airflow. The rigid, stainless steel handles are covered with silicone grips to ensure they stay cool, even when the stove is hot. Please note that this stove is not rated for indoor use.

• Dimensions: 11x11x10
• Weight: 14.25 pounds
• Uses wood, biomass, and charcoal
MSRP: $129.95

Berkey Light Water Filtration System
The Berkey Light water purifier can be used in any setting, but it was originally designed to be a lower-cost, lightweight, portable unit. The Berkey Light holds 2.5 gallons of purified water and is ideally suited for outdoor and emergency use: It requires no water pressure and no electricity and can provide pure drinking water from almost any source. The lightweight BPA-free poly material is extremely durable, making it dent-proof and shatterproof. The two black Berkey filters that come with the unit are good for up to 6,000 gallons of purified drinking water.

• 2.5-gallon capacity
• Dimensions: 9×28 inches
• Weight: 7 pounds (empty)
• High-quality, BPA-free, food-safe material
• Easy-flow spigot
MSRP: $231.00

Voyager Radio
Looking for a survival radio with all the bells and whistles? If so, the Kaito Voyager emergency radio with dream features should be your first choice. It features a staggering six options to power this essential tool: solar, crank, AA batteries, AC adapter (optional), rechargeable battery pack, and USB charging port. This radio receives AM, FM, SW1, and SW2 signals, as well as seven standard weather bands and a weather alert feature that activates whenever critical information is relayed. The Voyager also doubles as a campside, five-LED reading lamp and offers two emergency signals (red and white), used to indicate the severity of your personal survival situation.

The Voyager is perfect to store in your car, cabin, and alternative bug-out location or anywhere you need an invaluable, multi-function helping hand.
MSRP: $69.99

The Honda EU2000i inverter generator is very quiet, easy to carry, and fuel efficient, making it ideal for TVs, small appliances, and basic lights. The stable power allows for safe use of computers and other sensitive electronics. With a very low 59 decibels at max power, it is perfect for an inconspicuous source of power. It is small—about the size of a gym bag—and light, at only 47 pounds. It can last nearly 10 hours on one gallon of gas and can provide 1,600 watts of continuous power.

• Rated watts: 1,600
• Displacement (cc): 98
• Run time: 8.1 hours @ ¼ load
• Receptacles: two
• Parallel-ready: yes
• Noise (dB): 59
• Fuel: gas
• Dimensions: 20×11.4×16.7 inches
• Weight: 47 pounds
MSRP: $999.99

Goal Zero LightHouse 250

The Goal Zero LightHouse lantern offers the best of several different worlds when it comes to rechargeable power. It offers three ways to recharge the batteries: via USB, plugged into any computer or USB outlet (cable included); via the solar panel mounting on the lantern’s top; or via the handcrank. Use the energy to power the light, to operate a flashing, red beacon light that rings the hood, or even charge a smartphone or tablet. The light is dual directional, meaning you can light up on half or both. A full charge from the sun or a USB takes about seven hours, while a turn on the crank for a minute or two will give about 20 minutes of light. When fully charged, however, the batteries will last for 48 hours with the light on low.

• Weight: 1.1 pounds
• Dimensions: 4.5x5x6.6 inches
• Battery cell type: Li-NMC
• Cell capacity: 16.3 watts
• LED (output): 250 lumens
MSRP: $79.99


In a real survival situation—where it is the end of the world as we know it—the power grid will be the least of your worries. You’ll need to focus your energies elsewhere. Those who are unprepared and see in the pitch darkness a white beacon emanating from your house will be drawn to it like moths to a flame. They will assume, correctly, that because you have light and power, you have spent time and effort preparing for disasters and will have a host of food and supplies to withstand whatever may come.

Protect yourself by not advertising your ability to persevere. Use heavy blankets to black out your windows, a length of tape to keep the light from spilling out under your front door, and don’t forget to block the peephole.

If you have to go outside with your light, use a small flashlight, and keep the light directed only exactly where you need it. Skills used in protecting your perimeter will be helpful here. If your house or apartment looks like just another victim of the blackout, thieves bent on taking advantage of your stash might just overlook it.

If it is hot outside, try to go to the lowest level in your home, such as a basement, to stay cool (cool air falls, and basements are usually underground) or, if you don’t have a basement, find an interior room away from outside walls. Wear light, airy clothing, and drink plenty of water. If it is cold outside, layer up your clothing. Don’t use your gas oven as a source of heat. Close all blinds, and gather in a small room that is preferably on the southwest area of the house, where the sun will hit it the most. If you have to drive anywhere, make sure you have enough fuel for the return trip, because gas stations rely on electricity to power the pumps. Watch out when you are on the road. Treat traffic lights as four-way stop signs. Drive slowly, and maintain focus, because other people may be in a panic and not able to concentrate. Because you’re still eating, that food has to go somewhere. Although your toilets work without power, eventually, the sewer lines might become clogged. If so, you’ll need to create an area in your yard for a latrine. Consider a slit trench, or invest in a series of disposable bio-waste bags to use as a makeshift toilet.


Realize that having electricity isn’t as important as society makes it out to be and that you are a survivor with the knowledge and proper gear to withstand nearly anything. In a true survival situation, focus on your immediate safety from threats, the security of your shelter, and food and water first. Your games of Candy Crush can wait until the power comes back on.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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