When the lights went out during Hurricane Irma it wasn’t too bad— at first.
Two house guests and I sat in the dark listening to reports of wind speed and spreading power outages on a crank hand-held radio. As the night wore on, as it became clear my home in Clearwater had missed the worst of the storm, we went to bed relieved, but a little sweaty.
The next day, blustery and comparatively cool, was fine, too. My house guests departed and I was busy until late in the day covering the storm for the Tampa Bay Times. At night, I strapped on a miner’s flashlight (hands-down my best pre-storm purchase) and read by an open window to the whine of generators.
On the second day, the heat and humidity came back. That’s when life without power stopped being an adventure and started its long descent into a sweaty, smelly hellscape.
2018 TAMPA BAY TIMES HURRICANE GUIDE: FIVE LESSONS FROM IRMA
Ditto Day 3. By that time, when my wife and two kids returned from an extended tour of cheap hotel rooms in the Deep South, the indoor heat was brutal. All my ice had melted and the great food dump began.
As the days dragged on, we watched neighbors and friends get their power back. By Friday night, as I sat in a rocking chair in my driveway, watching yet another Duke Energy deadline slip past, I lost myself in a fury of exhaustion and self-pity. The heat rash didn’t help.
By the time our power flicked back on Sunday afternoon, I had gone a solid seven days without power.
Our neighborhood of Pride, in unincorporated Pinellas County near Eagle Lake Park, was one of the last in the county where the lights came back on.
What did I learn? You can never have enough batteries. When the media starts tracking a hurricane, start eating everything in your freezer. And, if you live on a street that is on an isolated trunk of the power grid — which, it turned out, I do — don’t waste energy raging that the linemen haven’t arrived yet.
Settle in for the long haul.
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Mary Burrell, education and outreach coordinator for Pinellas County Emergency Management, offered these tips for surviving the next power outage:
• Planning ahead should be the guiding principle. Mentally go through the scenarios of what you and your family will need to maintain some semblance of civilization if you find yourselves without power for week or more.
"It’s like planning for a vacation," she said.
• Hint: Buy batteries. Then buy more batteries.
• Other things to remember: Eat down that freezer and fridge. And buy plenty of non-perishables. "When I see a hurricane coming," Burrell said, "I start eating my cheese and I don’t buy more."
• Get a phone charger for your vehicle so you can keep your cell phones running. Invest in a solar-powered battery charger, too.
• I can vouch that, when you spend a week without power, generators become an object of obsession. More than seven months after the storm, I’m still online window shopping, gazing at the displays of whole-house generators.
The pricetag — up to nearly $10,000 for a 22kw monster that could run air conditioning, appliances and WiFi for the whole house — has tempered that fantasy.
But Burrell warned that, when it comes to generators, Floridians need to do their research and learn the safety rules.
Operate them well clear of doors and windows — and never run a portable generator inside a house or building. If you go the whole-house route — where the generator hooks up to the gas line — make sure you get someone who is certified and skilled to install it.
"It can be very dangerous," Burrell said of all generators.
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If there is a silver lining to that long bout without the lights, it’s family time.
No screens. Nary a device. Just books, games and conversation.
But, Burrell cautions, you need to plan for the downtime, too. Start by dusting off those old Stratego or Monopoly games.
"It’s good chance for the family to gather around a good board game," she said.
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