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How to prepare for a power outage in New York City

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Six things to know to prepare for a blackout

Middle Manhattan Loses Power Photo by VIEWPRESS

By all accounts, the blackout that affected a chunk of Manhattan’s west side on July 13 could have been much worse. Though the blackout left many parts of Midtown and the Upper West Side in the dark, the lights were back on just before midnight. And while the affected area was one of the city’s most visible—it darkened the bright lights in Times Square!—it was also relatively small.

But you never know when another blackout could happen—and with temperatures on the rise thanks to climate change, it’s very likely that power outages related to electricity use in the city will increase. (Think of how often you run your air conditioner when the thermometer goes above 90 degrees.)

And there’s precedent for longer power outages in the city: The blackout of 1977 lasted for 25 hours, and the massive power outage in 2003 left many people in the dark for as long as two days. During Superstorm Sandy, some people were without power for up to 10 days.

The point being: You never know when a larger emergency might take out your access to electricity, and it’s good to be prepared. Here are six things you need to know to be ready for another blackout.

Assemble an emergency supply kit.

It’s a good idea to keep supplies on hand that will be useful during a power outage (which overlap with supplies that will come in handy during natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes). You should have enough of each item on hand to last for a full week, at a minimum. Here’s a list from NYC’s Office of Emergency Management:

  • A gallon of water per person in your household per day
  • A first-aid kit, as well as any medicines you take and back-up medical equipment (oxygen, hearing aids, etc.) that may be necessary, along with copies of usage instructions
  • Non-perishables, ready-to-eat canned foods, and a manual can opener
  • A flashlight or battery-powered lantern, a battery-powered AM/FM radio, and plenty of extra batteries (you can also find wind-up flashlights and radios)
  • Glow sticks
  • A whistle or bell

Not included in OEM’s list, but crucial to our plugged-in times, are backup chargers for any essential electronic devices (such as your smartphone or laptop). Solar-powered and hand-crank chargers are also available; the Wirecutter recommends one that’s available for $70.

Power outages can happen at any time—in the summer during heat waves, in winter during a storm, or if the city is impacted by a weather event like Superstorm Sandy. OEM recommends including weather-specific items in a supply kit, such as sunscreen in the summer and blankets in the winter. And don’t forget to have supplies for pets and kids on hand, if necessary.

Know what not to do.

No one person can prevent a large-scale power outage from happening, but there are small ways you can mitigate your electricity use during high-risk times (heat waves, for example).

  • Don’t run your air conditioner at temperatures lower than 78 degrees during a heat wave—the cumulative effect of thousands (if not millions) of New Yorkers using air conditioning can overburden electrical systems, and running your A/C at a higher temperature (or on an economy setting, if available) can help mitigate that. (Consider heading to a cooling center, or one of these sites with free air conditioning.)
  • Don’t open your refrigerator and freezer doors if power does go out, but do unplug other devices (lamps, microwaves, alarm clocks) and keep your lights turned off.
  • Don’t use appliances—especially heavy-duty ones like dishwashers or washing machines—when you’re not home, and keep your electricity use in general to a minimum, particularly on hot summer days.
  • Don’t make phone calls if you can help it—cell service will almost certainly get overwhelmed during major crises. Text instead if possible.
  • Don’t use a gas stove or oven as a heating source during a cold-weather outage, and don’t run gas-powered appliances (like a generator) inside.
  • And while you’re at it, don’t rely solely on candles as a light source—you never know when one could tip over and start a fire.
  • And, finally, don’t panic. Try and stay calm, and keep your ears open and eyes peeled for information regarding a power outage.

Know how to get around.

The power outage on July 13 affected some of Manhattan’s busiest subway lines—the A, C, E, D, 1, 2, and 3 all run up the west side—and created a cascading effect where much of the system experienced delays. Traffic lights went dark, so using cabs to get around was tricky (and ride-hailing services would likely have monster surge pricing in place anyway). And while buses still ran during the blackout, there were delays.

Ideally, if a power outage that affects the city, you’ll be able to stay close to home—but what do you do if you absolutely must get somewhere? Keep an eye on the websites and Twitter accounts for New York City’s major transit systems—subway, bus, commuter rail, ferries, etc.—for details of what’s running, and know what’s near your apartment so you’ll be able to get there quickly. (City officials recommended local bus service on Saturday night, so be aware of the lines near you.)

And there’s always Citi Bike:

Take a class.

City agencies like the NYPD, FDNY, and OEM will handle the major business of restoring power and keeping the city functioning during a blackout, but there are ways that you can help in your community—and classes that pass that knowledge on to average New Yorkers. Here are a few:

Stay informed.

The city has plenty of resources that are available during emergencies—not just power outages, but hurricanes, winter storms, and other major incidents—to keep New Yorkers informed.

OEM has created both the Notify NYC and Ready NYC apps, which serve different, but equally useful, functions. Notify is the more spartan of the two apps, and its name basically says it all: It will notify you when major events happen, and will also tell you about planned incidents—road closures, flyovers, and the like—happening near you.

Ready NYC is the better app to download if you want more information about creating an emergency preparedness plan. Within the app, you can add information on your emergency contacts (both close by and farther afield), as well as planned meeting spots for people within your immediate family or social circle. The app also has checklists for things like a go bag, health information, and a supply kit to keep in your apartment. It also provides crucial information such as when to evacuate, or which flood zone your home is located in. TL;DR: Download it, just in case.

Get to know your neighbors.

“Forty-six percent of individuals expect to rely a great deal on people in their neighborhood for assistance within the first 72 hours after a disaster,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready campaign.

New Yorkers are particularly good at coming together during a crisis; we saw this after 9/11, the 2003 blackout, and Superstorm Sandy, to name just a few examples. During the blackout on July 13 (admittedly, a much smaller crisis than those examples), plenty of stories circulated of New Yorkers performing acts of kindness for their fellow denizens, whether it was sharing booze or stepping into an intersection to direct traffic.

The best way to put this into action in your own life is to familiarize yourself with your neighbors—not just the people who live in your building, but those on your block. Pay special attention to anyone who might need extra help in the event of a power outage: people with limited mobility, the elderly, and those with small children. This is especially crucial in the heat of summer or dead of winter, when people are most vulnerable during blackouts.