Effects of a prolonged power grid failure
Effects of a Prolonged Power Grid Failure

We are so used to electricity constantly being fed to our homes and businesses that it is hard to image what life would be like if the power grid was down for an extended period of time. We have also become so dependent on electricity to power our everyday lives that most people have no idea how to deal with the effects of a prolonged power grid failure.

Part 1 of this series talked about concerns and threats to our power grid. I originally thought this series would be just 2 posts but now I see that 3, maybe 4, are necessary to get the point across. This post will continue with painting a picture of what the effects of a prolonged power outage looks like and the 3rd post will outline how to prepare for a long-term power outage.

72 Hour is Not Enough – The NAIC Report

The government has been telling us for years that we need to have a 72-Hour kit to be prepared for disasters but that suggestion is changing. They have seen what happened with Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the western wildfires and the recent hurricanes that have hit our country. They are continuing to assess the threats and they realize that they cannot rescue everyone in 3 days. In December 2018, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report called “Surviving a Catastrophic Power Outage”. This was a years long study by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council that was tasked to evaluate the nation’s ability to respond to and recover from a catastrophic grid failure. Some main points of the study are:

  • If a catastrophic event happened, it could be weeks or months before power is restored.
  • 72 hours is not enough and that the new standard should be 2 weeks.
  • It also says that the federal government should not be considered the main support organization for disasters. This should handle by state and local governments and that individuals needs to take responsibility for their own lives by being prepared.

What Would a Prolonged Power Grid Failure Look Like

The timing of the effects described below may not happen in the exact order they are written. Many factors could affect what happens when but the timeline depicted is fairly realistic.

The First Week

If the power is out for a few days most people, except the elderly or those with medical needs, can deal with it. It is an inconvenience and irritation. You have enough gas in your car to get to the store to buy ice to keep perishables from spoiling and fill up your gas tank. You can get to the pharmacy and grocery for immediate needs and you probably have enough batteries and flashlights to deal with the dark for a few nights. Of course, you can go do those things if the stores have adequate backup power generators and people are not acting like it is a Black Friday sale at Walmart.

If it is hot you can open the windows and deal with some heat and if it is cold you can layer your clothes and use extra blankets to keep warm. You will be ok without having TV and when your phone is out of juice, you can get by without social media. You can break out the playing cards and board games and basically do some glamping for a bit.

It is likely have enough non-perishable food in your pantry and if you keep the refrigerator closed as much as possible, you can easily feed your family for a few days by cooking on your grill or a camping stove if you have one. If not, hopefully you have enough canned goods to get by with cold meals.

The water is still flowing from the tap at this point and is good enough to drink. You probably have basic first aid supplies and enough prescription meds to last through the outage. So, you are not going to starve or become dehydrated and can handle minor medical situations.

After the First Week

So, for a few days, maybe a week, you will be ok. But after a week or two it becomes serious and even desperate. It is going to be hard to find a gas station that has electricity and if you do there will be long lines and possibly rationing. It is doubtful there will be any ice and any of the snack foods are long gone.

If you can find a grocery store or pharmacy that is still open, their supplies will minimal. Most of these stores only have 3 to 4 days of inventory and get shipments a couple of times a week. If this is a regional grid down situation, deliveries will start to slow down if they happen at all. It is likely that after 2 weeks nothing will be open for business. (It is actually possible that after just a few days the stores will be empty. I’m just trying to stay a bit positive at this point.)

At some point it is going to be hard to get more cash from the bank and more and more any business that has goods for sale will only be accepting cash.

After a Couple of Weeks

After a couple of weeks, your limited supply of batteries for your flashlights and radio have been used up and your candles are all but gone. You are fumbling around in the dark early in the evening. You now have to depend on word of mouth to find any news about government handouts, the status of repairs and where civil unrest and crime are rising.

It has been a while since you had a hot meal because the propane for your grill or camping stove ran out after a few days. Since you are out of fuel, you are not able to heat water for washing yourself, your dishes or clothes. You didn’t think about storing baby wipes. Without fuel you can’t boil water to purify it and if you do not have the capability to filter and purify water, your risk of water born illness goes way up.

Your food is pretty much gone at this point and even with government help, you are likely not getting the 2000+ calories you need every day. You are starting to lose weight and not at full strength and energy.

After a few weeks, medical facilities and emergency services are running low on fuel for their generators. Emergency Services are only responding to severe medical needs, the fire stations are only responding to large fires and the police cannot deal with all of the crime and civil unrest that is flaring up.

Now you are at the point that you wished you had evacuated IF you had a plan for somewhere to go and the money to pay for it. If you didn’t evacuate and were not prepared, you are now dependent on the government and relief organizations to sustain your family.

Of course, the relief organizations are not going to be delivering food and water to your door or even your street. You will have to walk or ride a bike to a distribution point a couple of times a week and that will be just for the basics because you can only take what you can carry. Hopefully you are in decent physical shape.

So, at 2 to 4 weeks things are pretty grim and you wished you had planned more, learned more and purchased supplies and equipment to sustain and protect your family.

After a Month

At some point, utility services are going to run out of fuel to filter and purify water and pump it up into the water towers. If you are on a public sewer system the pumping stations will eventually stop moving sewage and it will start backing up into homes.

There is a good chance that a lot of the elderly and infirmed will die after a month if they have not been evacuated out of the area or to community shelters. If you are in a season of very high or low temperatures, even people that were healthy before the event are now weak and struggling and more people are starting to suffer, get sick and die.

Sanitation is a huge issue now and since most people don’t know how to maintain a sanitary environment, disease is spreading.  People are using the bathroom in open, public places which is contaminating surface water and helping to spread disease.

Crime has risen sharply and when the sun goes down you have a hard time sleeping due to fear for your safety. Good people that have never committed a crime will do about anything to feed their hungry families.

It is probable that marshal law has been enacted and curfews established. It is possible that the government will think things will be safer if everyone gives up their guns so (some) law abiding citizens comply and the criminals don’t. Crime gets worse.

Life is starting to resemble how our ancestors lived in the 1800’s except that they knew how to live without electricity.

In Conclusion

The Federal Government is now saying that you need to be prepared for 2 weeks and take responsibility for your own survival. The picture I have tried to paint shows the consequences of not being prepared if the power is out for an extended period of time and how the government is not prepared to deal with a catastrophic power outage.  I hope it hit home enough that you want to learn more and start to prepare. If you are up for more of an in-depth picture of an event of this type, I highly suggest that you read the book called “One Second Afterby Willian R. Forstchen. It will open your eyes to what the world would look like and how people will react.

The 3rd post in this series will cover ways to prepare for a long-term power outage. If you haven’t already, please signup for our newsletter so you can be notified when it is published. By signing up you will get a free PDF titled “Overview of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Planning”. It’s a good primer to get you thinking about preparedness. The newsletter signup is on the right side of any page on our website.

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  • a prolonged power supply would also mean no fuel for your vehicle as most if not all filling station fuel pumps are operated by electricity with no manual back up.
    the computers that control those pumps would also not function without electricity.

    • Chip Feck

      Yep. I think that there will be a few stations that keep running for a few days with generators but I don’t think that would last to long.

  • Kenneth

    great article with good information–too bad most individuals don’t think it could happen in the USA. Individual preparation is paramount; disaster preparation is not something that can be ignored.

  • Ken

    A 5 gallon pail, a box of small garbage bags and a plastic toilet seat (they make them to fit the pail) and a bag of lime do not take up much space and will be a big help in the sanitation department. Not to mention a case of TP.

  • Ken

    It is vital that you understand exactly how your home is heated. I live in the North-East where most of us heat with oil or gas. Either way, whether you have forced air or water, you need electric to run the system. If you have oil, you have a storage tank, but that will run out soon enough. If you have gas, the utility needs electric to pump the gas to your house. Not many have a wood burning fireplace, but if you do, you need a stockpile of firewood. As a back-up, Big Buddy sells a unit that runs on propane (the 6 pound canisters) but also has an option to connect to a standard 20# (now only 15#) propane tank. This unit is designed to run safely indoors and is a great addition for those living in colder areas. Remember, you also have to keep the pipes from freezing in your house or have a way to shut off the water supply and drain the system. I suspect that very few people know how to do this nor have the connections to be able to do this when needed.

  • Chip Feck

    Wow, I am going to have to check out the Big Buddy unit that you can run indoors. Thanks for contributing Ken. Really appreciate it!

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