How long does bottled water last? We answer that, plus other questions related to hurricanes

Q: I have some bottled water left from last summer. Is it still safe to drink?

A: The Food and Drug Administration says commercially bottled water should last indefinitely.

Some states require expiration dates on all packaged foods, so some bottlers put them on all their bottles, even those shipped to states where the dates aren't required.

The taste of bottled water can change over time, particularly if the bottle is exposed to sunlight or heat. The plastic in the bottle itself can alter the taste over time. Also, many gases are able to pass through plastics, which can affect the taste of bottled water. The change in flavor may be barely noticeable, and it likely won't make you sick. One bottler recommends a shelf life of two years.

If you fill empty bottles from a cooler or the tap, the water is best consumed within a day or two if it has been at room temperature. It's good for two weeks if refrigerated.

Q: What's the safest place in my house for valuables?

A: If you don't have a personal safe, consider your dishwasher. It is anchored to cabinets and plumbing, it's waterproof and the door locks.

Q: What should I do if my car sustains flood damage?

A: Don't start it. Have it towed to a mechanic. If water got into the brake system, the brakes could fail. Change the oil and filter. If the water reached the dashboard, your insurance company probably will declare the car a total loss.

Another automotive note: Windshields and windows of cars that are parked outside during the storm are prominent victims of windborne debris. Repairing a shattered windshield may be one of the first things you have to do after a storm.

Q: Can I use the sandbags I used last summer? Can I reuse them from storm to storm this year?

A: Sandbags can be saved and reused when the storm has passed. Once they've dried out, store them in a dry spot indoors, such as a shed or garage. The bags may deteriorate or become moldy if they're exposed for a long time to sun, water and insects.

Q: Should I call the electric company if the power goes out? Don't they know this?

A: Even during widespread outages, the utilities encourage customers to call, because the power may be out on only one side of the street. But call only once. Repeated calls do not result in faster restoration of your power, the utilities say.

Here are the numbers:

• Progress Energy Florida: toll-free 1-800-228-8485

• Tampa Electric: (813) 223-0800 in Hillsborough; toll-free 1-888-223-0800 in other counties

• Withlacoochee Electric Cooperative: (352) 567-5133

• Sumter Electric Cooperative: toll-free 1-800-732-6141

• Peace River Electric Cooperative: toll-free 1-877-282-3656

• Florida Power & Light: toll-free 1-800-468-8243

Q: What should I do if I see a fallen power line?

A: Call your electric utility. Treat all downed power lines as if they are electrified and extremely dangerous. NEVER touch a downed power line, never drive over a downed line and never touch anything in contact with a downed line. If a power line falls on a vehicle, do not touch the vehicle or the line; stay inside the vehicle until help arrives. Post-storm debris can hide fallen power lines.

Q: What should I do if a tree or branches have fallen on a power line?

A: Never try to remove a tree or branch from a power line. Instead, call your electric utility.

Q: How else can I protect myself from electrocution?

A: If your home is at risk of flooding, shut off power at the circuit-breaker panel or fuse box BEFORE water enters your home. Never replace a fuse or touch a circuit breaker with wet hands or while standing on a wet or damp surface.

Q: What other safety steps should I take as I wait for my power to be restored?

A: Turn off as many electrical appliances as possible and turn them on one by one after power is restored (this causes less stress to the electric system). If you use a portable generator, run it only in a well-ventilated area. DO NOT connect a generator to your home's electrical circuits. Use a battery-operated flashlight or lantern instead of candles. If you cook with Sterno or a charcoal or gas grill, do so only in a well-ventilated area, never in the house or in the garage.

Q: If my power goes out, can I still make phone calls?

A: If nearby cell towers are still operating, you can make calls on a charged cell phone. (Tip: Charge your phone as a storm draws near, and get a charger that operates off your car battery so you can use your phone even if the power is out for a long time.)

Corded land-line phones should still work, but cordless land-line phones, which need electricity to operate, will not. A power outage will also knock out broadband phone service and other Internet-based phone carriers. Bright House Networks' digital phone service uses an electrically powered modem with a built-in battery that will provide backup power for several hours in a power outage.

Q: Last time we had a hurricane, the power stayed on in my neighborhood all during the storm. Then it went out when the power company crews were repairing the lines a few blocks away. Why was that?

A: After a storm, line crews are trying to restore power to hundreds of thousands of people. Sometimes a traumatized system fails again while it is being brought back up to capacity. That could cause those who haven't lost power to do so. Typically, power is restored quickly in that situation.

Q: How should I prepare my computer when a hurricane is threatening?

A: Important data should be backed up and the discs stored in a secure location. If you leave the house, unplug the computer, disconnect phone and cable lines and make sure equipment such as printers and other peripherals that are attached to the computer also are disconnected. If the computer is on the floor and you're in a flood-prone area, it's probably best to put it in an elevated space.

Q: What happens if banks are closed and ATMs don't work after a storm because the power is out?

A: After a storm, banks can move generators, mobile ATMs or mobile branch offices into afflicted areas. The decision about where to place them depends on parking availability and the anticipated length of the power outage.

Q: Why are hurricanes named?

A: Tropical cyclones, the proper name for hurricanes, are named to provide ease of communication between forecasters and the public. The storms often last a week or longer, and more than one can occur at the same time in the same area. The first use of a proper name for a tropical cyclone was by an Australian forecaster, who named tropical cyclones after politicians he didn't like. The meteorologist could publicly describe a politician as "causing great distress" or "wandering aimlessly about the Pacific."

During World War II, Army, Air Force and Navy meteorologists named tropical cyclones after their girlfriends or wives. From 1950 to 1952, tropical cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean were identified by the phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie), but in 1953 the U.S. Weather Bureau switched to women's names.

Gender parity didn't come until 1979, when the World Meteorological Organization and the National Weather Service switched to a list of names that included men's names.

How long does bottled water last? We answer that, plus other questions related to hurricanes 05/15/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 2:50pm]

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