December, 2013 — although it usually means mild times in Toronto, a severe ice storm has left a good many residents without power, and by extension, heat. The temperature as I write this is -10° C (about 14° F), and will be dropping, not rising throughout the day. #icestorm2013 and #darkTO are the only things on many people’s mind. Many people have been without heat and power since Sunday morning, and will continue in the dark until after Christmas.
Not cold by Canadian winter standards, but with an urban dwelling and no alternative way to heat it, many people are left unprepared in a dangerous way. Assuming you have a half-decently stocked fridge and groceries for the week, the cold is probably going to be your most immediate challenge.
There are, of course, many things to keep in mind like turning off appliances, stockpiling water, etc., but here are some quick and dirty tips for those caught in the cold and dark:
Keep the heat you have
Make sure your doors and windows are sealed, so the heat you’ve built up doesn’t escape too quickly. It’s hard to notice the loss when your house is warm, but it will go fast, and you’ll need all the residual heat you have, during the cold night. Close all of your doors, and shore up any gaps to colder areas, especially near the floor — rolled up towels work great for that. Create an airlocking system any time you need to open a door to the cold, so minimize the heat that you lose. An easy way to improvise a double set of doors is to hang curtains or a sheet in front of the door, like they do in restaurants.
Get your blankets and layers ready. Do this when you’re still warm, and have enough light, so you’re not wasting energy searching for them when you wake up cold at night. Start to warm up earlier than you need it. Put on that hat and gloves, silly as it might sound. It’s a lot harder to get warm once you’re already cold.
Keep the cold you need
Don’t open the freezer or refrigerator any more than you need to. If you know you’re going to be in it for the long haul, consider throwing a sheet or a tarp over it and you (again, think “airlock”) when you open the door, to minimize moving air. If you’re going for more than 48 hours, put your most perishable food in a cooler or other solid container, and place it outside to stay cool. Remember to place it out of sight, and if it doesn’t latch, place something heavy on top of it to stop curious critters from getting to it.
Add some heat
If you’re prepared with a generator or other portable heat/electricity source, great. Just remember safety: don’t leave unattended, and make sure the genny can breath and has a safe exhaust path (ie, keep it outside, and away from windows). Most people in the city won’t have this, however, so you’ll need to look at other ways to add to your heat.
Break out the candles, but carefully. They don’t add much, but they will give you light. Put a bunch of tea lights in a bread pan (thanks, Jake!), and put something that will hold and distribute the heat, such as a cast iron pan, or a terra cotta pot. Never leave candles unattended for more than a moment. If you’ve got votives, use them. Patterned whiskey glasses make great tea light holders.
Most stoves meant for the outdoors should stay there. If you have a garage, use it as an in-between area to cook/heat water.
If you have a fuel camping lantern like the venerable Coleman 220J with a double mantle, you’ll have to crack a window since it will go through oxygen quickly, and you’ll risk a heavy CO2 buildup.
For any heat source, make sure it won’t topple or get knocked over. The last thing you want to be is homeless because you burned down the house.
Heat yourself from the inside
A good way to preserve those perishables is to eat them. Try to stay with fats and protein, as opposed to a lot of sugar-based junk food. You’ll especially appreciate the slow-released energy from good animal fats during the night as you sleep. And lots of cheese. I love cheese.
Collect water and heat it slowly, with an eye on your fuel (keep in mind that it may take an hour or more to bring just a couple of cups to a boil over candles). Once you have warm or hot water, drink as much of it as you need, and keep the rest in insulated containers. Fill everything you can; hot water is a very welcome midnight snack in a house with no heat.
Keep your power
Don’t use your phone as a flashlight if you can help it. Your phone is a way to call for help, and you don’t want to find it dead when you need to call 911 just because you were reading a magazine by the flash. Dim the screen. You can socialize later at the bar when it’s all over, so keep communications short and information-based.
Make sure you have a small flashlight on you at all times. It’s easy to set a flashlight down, and then forget where it is once the sun goes down, so make sure you have something in your pocket, on your belt, or around your neck. Know where your batteries are, and carry a lighter, again in your pocket.
A car battery backup/booster is great to keep those small appliances running, but again, make sure you’re not wasting the power that could be used in an emergency. Ideal use is recharging portable devices and batteries, and many models sport an integrated flashlight and radio.
Turn on the radio. It helps to pass the time, and broadcasters will often have further tips and local updates that can affect your situation. Reach out to friends and family if you can, both to see how they’re doing, and to inform them of your situation and plans.
Help others who need it
Check on friendly neighbours, especially the elderly, if it’s safe to do so. Don’t compromise your safety or security, but if you can help others in your community, go ahead. Just remember to be very careful when moving around your neighbourhood, as falling trees, bad road conditions, and other hazards will still be present.
Above all, use your common sense, and keep your wits. Think things through, act with purpose. Communicate openly and honestly with your group, and be supportive.
If you have any tips of your own to share, please feel free to add them in the comments.
Here’s wishing you warm thoughts and a Merry Christmas from Mike, at A Word in the Woods.
Thanks to Mike Pezzi for the top photo.