7 ways to be prepared for an ice storm [aka The 95-hour Christmas Candlelight Vigil]


Were you ready?

Icy Trees and Shrubs - Toronto Ice Storm 2013 | EmmaEats


We learned a lot in our household during our 95 hours without power and heat — most notably that we are not prepared to survive 72 hours* with no power in the dead of winter. (*72 hours is what most government agencies suggest is the time people should be prepared for in case of emergency/disaster.)

Until we get a wake-up call, generally speaking, many of us are unprepared for an emergency. Add to that the chaos of holiday preparations (read: 2 days before Christmas) and you can imagine that the last thing on anyone’s mind would be a power outage that would last straight through the holiday for many long, cold, wintry days.

Yet that, indeed, was the situation for hundreds of thousands of people here in Toronto after an ice storm battered the city in December.

We are fortunate – the storm we experienced was nowhere near the devastation that so many people have endured around the globe in recent events, but nonetheless, certainly tested the resolve of many.

Thankfully, there were some positive things we experienced too.

Our family managed to stay home together for the first two days of the outage. In fact, on the first morning, the girls started their day enjoying hot chocolate and warm oatmeal, a standard weekend breakfast. While I enjoyed hot tea, G splurged on instant coffee – although I’m not so sure he would agree with “splurging” as the appropriate description. Cuddled under blankets for family movie time (played on charged laptops), playing lots of games, reading books and enjoying “romantic” meals by candlelight in our dining room made it a welcome break from the hustle of holiday preparations (well, almost — after all we had no heat!).

By the second morning though, as the temperature indoors began to fall and city officials began communicating the extent of the outage, things didn’t feel so rosy. We were fortunate to have family with power close by and by mid-afternoon, we were taking the girls to warmer surroundings. G, however, stayed on to soldier on through the duration.

Here are 7 things that helped us ride out the outage:

  1. Having “emergency” supplies –

Never originally intending them for an emergency, we’ve long had this stash of hundreds of IKEA tealights that seemed like a brilliant purchase at the time. Ditto on batteries from Costco. G occasionally teased me about having so many of both, thinking we’d never get through them. Let’s just say he’s reduced the teasing after this experience.

Put together your own emergency supply stash – store these items together or store them apart, just know where you have them and that you can get to them quickly. Include:

      • Candles/flashlights – no power = no light = not good especially once the sun goes down. Ensure you have a batch of candles and matches/lighters. Tea lights and pillar candles work well (and help keep small rooms warm!) because they are stable and at worst, you can stand them on plates if need be.
      • Batteries – have an assortment of batteries for the devices you intend to use during an emergency. Most batteries now come with a freshness guarantee that lasts years so pickup some extras. At worst, you’ll get through them with all the toys the kids get during the holidays annually.
      • Heat source and associated fuel to boil water/warm food – Find out whether the water treatment systems in your area are affected. Boil water if you need to and pay attention to the usage requirements of whatever your heating source is whether it’s a camping stove, a fireplace, barbecue, etc. If it’s meant to be used outside, use it outside.
        • Gas stoves – if you have one and the natural gas supply isn’t cutoff, this will be a godsend. Know how to light the burners without the electricity running. Gas ovens tend to require the computer to function, but the stovetops should work just fine. A hot meal improves your feeling of well-being when you’re cold, not to mention warms up the kitchen too. We filled cast-iron pots with water and heated them to boiling. With lids on, we moved the pots and let them radiate heat into cooler areas around the house.
        • Gas water heater – if you have a gas water heater, you may still have hot water. We fortunately did. Hot showers not only help keep your sanity in insane conditions but the water heater will help keep the temperature up in your utility area/basement.
      • First aid kit – cold, tired and extra anxious? You’re more likely make a mistake and you won’t want to be fumbling in the dark to find the bandaids, antibiotic ointment, headache remedies, etc.
      • Cash – power outages can wreak havoc with payment systems even if shops are open for business. Credit/debit card processing may be impacted and the only way you’ll be getting that warm cup of coffee is if you have a few dollars available.
      • Non-perishable food – Have a collection of easy-to-prepare foods in case you don’t have power or a way to heat food. Crackers, dried fruit, instant coffee/tea, packaged soups/broths, tinned fish, pasta, quinoa, rice, boxed milk (no refrigeration required), oatmeal and water will all help you get some energy and make you feel a little more normal as you muscle through this situation. Remember if you happen to stock your emergency stash with canned goods to store a manual can opener with them too.

2. Knowing our home –

G has a fantastic ability to retain information about so many disparate topics. He is the self-professed bearer of useless information, but when it comes to our home, he has accumulated so much valuable knowledge.

Know the locations of main power breakers and the water and gas shut-off valves. Know where you can turn off water so if temperatures are falling, you won’t return home to burst water pipes. Know how to drain pipes and radiators (if you have them), and remember to unplug appliances, computers and other electrical equipment before the power comes back on to avoid damage due to a power surge.

Remember to secure your home – know where vulnerabilities are (ie. sliding doors, windows) and secure them. If you have an alarm, you may/may not have backup power for it and if you do, it may be for a limited amount of time. Unfortunately, dark, abandoned houses are easy targets for those who capitalize on the plight of others.

3. Staying connected –

Using our smartphones to communicate with family, friends, Toronto Hydro, city councillors and for access to the internet was incredibly valuable to keep up to date on what was happening.

Make sure you have a way to call for help and be in touch with emergency services/communications. Have a battery-operated radio, a charged smartphone with a charged backup battery (or a way of recharging it like connecting your device to a laptop via USB cable) and/or hard-wired landline so you can get information as it becomes available.

Know your emergency resources – document where to get updates on what’s happening, how to report your outage, police, fire, medical contacts, plumbing and electrical resources, city councillors and other people who can help. Also, have a plan to help you connect with your family members if you are apart. Know work, school, mobile numbers and the emergency plan for those locations.

4. Assessing the damage –

We lost our 60 year old maple tree a few years ago, much to our disappointment. We are thankful now because as we investigated what was happening outdoors, we didn’t have branches that pulled down our wires, landed on our cars or damaged our house as so many of our neighbours did.

Both inside and outside, know what you’re dealing with and do what you can to safely clear paths for you and emergency personnel to get to you if needed.  If there are wires down, never touch them and instead report them to the appropriate authorities.

5. Dealing with Perishable Foods –

You’re likely to have a fridge and freezer full of food that is no longer being refrigerated.  For short outages, this usually won’t be a concern, but for longer ones, limit the amount you open and shut the fridge doors. The longer they stay closed, the cooler the temperature will remain. During a significant (winter) outage, if you can, box up the food and find a secure, cold place to store it outdoors. Temperatures dipped to -17C (~2F) and were generally below 0C (32F) for the duration of our outage. Fortunately for us, this meant we ate some of the food from the fridge and sacrificed very little from our fridge and freezer.

6. Finding somewhere warm to go, even for short bursts –

Although we didn’t take advantage of them, Toronto had warming centres setup around the city. Additionally, since this wasn’t a city-wide outage, most shops were open and some even had extended hours. They became make-shift charging centres for smartphones and laptops, in addition to a warm place to park for awhile.

This is especially important if you’re planning on keeping vigil in your house. Being in the dark and cold can sap your (positive) energy quickly. Work in shifts if you have family members or friends that can help.

7. Staying positive –

As the hours dragged on, it didn’t always feel like it but help was coming. G & I were definitely in survival mode: our thoughts were totally encompassed with making sure our family and home were safe, warm and well cared for. And, even though we had a warm place to stay and caring people surrounded us, anything beyond making sure our girls and their home were safe seemed an extraneous diversion. We needed to remind ourselves that through all of this, it was still Christmas. It was important to our girls that Santa remembered them and we still celebrated. After all, we were together, healthy, safe and loved. And we knew that there were some very dedicated hydro workers out there, separated from their own families through the holidays, making their way through the mess out there to get power restored.

Coping through our 95-hour Christmas candlelight vigil was no walk in the park for us and this isn’t intended by any means to be a comprehensive list of what to do in case of a disaster. We fortunately managed to keep our house in a state through the outage that meant once power was back, we were able to get settled in with minimal effort. Was there something in particular that helped you weather the storm? Do you think you would be prepared if another storm blows through?

Other Tips and Suggestions:

      • The Canadian Government has a website called GetPrepared.ca to help you put together a comprehensive emergency plan for your family. In the US, visit Ready.gov for more information.

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