Humans are not good at planning for disasters or other rare events. It’s easy to procrastinate. Why worry about something that may not happen for years, maybe not in your lifetime.

Even if you do decide to plan for rare, but potentially devastating, events, it’s difficult to assess the level of risk. And even more problematic is the decision about how much hard earned cash to spend. How much are you prepared to spend for a little peace of mind?

My purpose here is to at least consider some of the possible devastating scenarios, in order to make intelligent rather than emotional decisions. In this installment, let’s think about grid failures, whether caused by natural events or the result of human actions. In our world, electricity is civilization. When the grid goes dark, our support system falls apart in a matter of hours.

I recently watched the PBS documentary on the 1977 Power Blackout in New York City. For those that don’t remember, it was among the largest is US history. The 1977 blackout followed a previous power failure and blackout in 1965 that was much larger, affecting a large part of the northeast and parts of Canada.

We should also consider the 2003 Northeast Blackout. Again, it affected a large part of the northeast, as well as Ontario Canada. 2003 was the biggest, both in the US in terms of people and area. It started on a moderately hot day in August, and peaked about 4:00 pm.

One thing that struck me was how each event had a totally different outcome. The 1965 event was relatively benign. But the 1977 event was an unmitigated disaster. There was large scale looting. In many parts of the city law and order completely broke down. There were over 1000 fires during the night, many of them outright arson.

Why do some disruptions bring out the best in us, while others deteriorate into total anarchy in a matter of hours?

The 1965 Blackout took place in November, and also peaked in the afternoon. The July 1977 Blackout happened during a heat wave, and peaked at after 9pm. It’s interesting that the 2003 blackout, in spite of affecting 10 million people, was handled quite well, not a lot of rioting and looting.

Leads one to think that heat plays a big part in the outcome. The 1977 event was on a very hot day. The city went dark after 9:00 pm, and the power remained off during the entire night. In the 2003 event some cell towers worked on backup power, along with some TV and radio stations. In 1977, all TV and Radio were off. Police were told to report to their nearest precinct, not the one where they normally worked. As a result, the most impoverished areas of the city had minimal police presence at the time it was needed the most.

It might also be instructive to look at Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. With flooding and the associated destruction of infrastructure, police presence all but vanished. The result was widespread looting and civil disorder.

By contrast, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 also caused widespread flooding and power outages, but did not result in civil disorder like New Orleans. To be fair, it wasn’t as severe a storm, and the police and emergency services were able to respond quickly. The quality of emergency services makes all the difference.

Where I live in North Carolina, we’ve had two significant power outages. Both were in the dead of winter. Both resulted in large numbers of people being without power for several days, but didn’t affect the entire metropolitan area. Emergency services were on the scene almost immediately. There was no civil disorder.


The conclusion I’m going to draw from all this, is that the power grid is no more reliable that it was 40 years ago. If an important part of your life requires power, you need to have a Plan B. An example would be if you have medication that requires refrigeration. Or you may have sleep apnea and use a mask. If any part of your work requires a phone or internet connection, you’re going to be up the creek.

The best plan, of course, is to not be there when something horrible happens. I lived in Charleston, South Carolina when hurricane Hugo came through in 1989. In spite of many locals telling me they had been through storms before, and everything would be fine, when the authorities first started talking about evacuation, I was out of there. My theory being that it’s a good idea to avoid the last minute rush.

I figure that worst case, you spend some extra money on gas and hotel rooms. I weigh that against the possibility that my house gets washed away or burned to the ground with me in it. All you need to do is to make a checklist of things to take with you. What can you fit into your car, and how long does it take to pack. I also have a safe, so some valuables that I don’t want to take with me can be stored there.

The second line of defense is to be able to survive in place. In my own case I have a small solar powered battery charger. Sufficient for a phone. I also keep a small supply of batteries, and plenty of LED flashlights. For water, I keep a couple of LifeStraws handy. That’s a year’s worth of potable drinking water for one person. I also always keep some canned food and Raman noodles in the pantry. I’m not a Doomsday Prepper, surviving a week or two is sufficient for any scenario that I can imagine. I have a good sleeping bag, and a few different ways to start a fire if something really horrible happens.

Rooftop solar panels could make living through a blackout or other disaster almost comfortable. The problem is protecting them from flying debris, wind and hail during a severe storm. I haven’t seen a good solution for that problem, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

The bottom line is that this is an area where each person has to make their own decision. For me, a scenario where it takes FEMA a week to get to you is the outer limit of what I’m prepared to plan for. To each his own.

When I add all this up, I have less that $500 tied up in my emergency preparedness plan. That’s excluding the safe, which was originally bought for other things. It’s not a lot of cash for what it buys, the peace of mind that comes from feeling prepared.

There’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.Stephen King



PBS Video on the 1977 Blackout

The Biggest Blackouts in History

The Blackout that Exposed Flaws in the Grid

The LifeStraw – Emergency Drinking Water