Where were you when the lights went out?

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Everywhere in the world it seems we are increasingly challenged to cope with emergency situations. And many of us don’t prepare for that likelihood, maybe because we don’t want to think about it, or we just get busy, or we can’t imagine it.  So we put off valuable preparations that make all the difference when the alert goes off on our phones and we have to spring into action.

Skillful Action is one of the eight aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. How we prepare and cope with emergencies falls into that area. Because my students and I had just experienced a three-day county-wide power outage*, I jumped ahead in our curriculum to that aspect. We’ll go back to our ‘regular programming’ — the order I had planned to teach the Eightfold Path in — after this brief but valuable opportunity to apply what we’ve learned to preparing for future events.

Here are a series of questions I posed my students. If you also experienced the power outage, please take this opportunity to answer them for yourself and make notes for an action plan. If you weren’t part of this California fire season event, please use this opportunity to explore these questions in regard to emergency situations in your own area. Perhaps you can reflect back to the last flood, hurricane, storm, earthquake, tornado or fire that you experienced. No one is immune! (For more comprehensive suggestions, go to ready.gov.)


If you experienced this power outage or other emergency situation recently, take a moment to reflect and note down what worked well and what didn’t. This questionnaire was geared toward my students, all of whom were able to stay in their homes but had no power. In neighboring counties many people were evacuated due to fire, threat of fire and smoke. For those kinds of emergencies, having out-of-area family or friends you could call to stay with, and of course having a ‘go’ kit ready with your medications, cash, etc. is vital.

Some areas to consider: 

Communications – Were you able to stay in touch? Use your phone? Read your emails? Text? Keep your cell phone charged? Use your landline if you have one? Who is your service provider? Were others with different providers better equipped? Some elderly people don’t have cell phones, so were quite out of touch, and loved ones were unable to contact them to assure they were safe. Is it time to get an inexpensive emergency cellphone for just such occasions?

Charging – Keeping your phone charged is easy if you have a little solar backup charger. Our community also offered charging at various community centers, but not right away. Most vehicles are set up to charge, but you have to keep the car running. The more options you have the better, so be sure to have a back up charger fully charged in your emergency kit.

Community – Do you know your neighbors? Was there a system in place to look out for each other? Did your town provide services, and if so, did you know about them? Is there someone locally who made sure that you were okay, or would have if you were in an emergency situation? (If not, consider setting up a ‘buddy system’ with another local person in the same situation. Independent living is great but in emergencies, we fall back on the networking skills of yore, and that means neighbors. There are many rewards to establishing strong bonds with neighbors even in non-emergency situations!

Food — Did you have sufficient food on hand to last? Were you able to cook? If you like coffee, be sure to keep plenty in stock. If you wouldn’t be able to make it, consider having a few canned coffee drinks on hand.
During this power outage those who had gas stoves were able to cook, but in another kind of emergency that might not be available, so what preparations would you need to make for that?
Usually power outages are localized, so you can just go to a different part of town or a neighboring town and go to a cafe, grocery store or restaurant. But this one affected all businesses in our county. Being prepared for that possibility is important.

Refrigeration — Again, in a small scale power outage, you can get ice, but since no stores had power, there was no ice to be had. If this happens again, I would put everything in the freezer compartment because it is smaller, or use an ice chest. Even with a number of ice packs and extra ice in plastic bins, the refrigerator warmed up faster than I expected.

Without refrigeration, canned or dried food is the go to. I find it difficult to make myself stock up on canned foods I would never eat, only to toss them when they expire. But we always have nuts on hand, and we used up salad makings, etc.

Cooking — If you are able to stay in your home but you can’t use your stove, it’s good to have a barbecue with a burner, or a camp stove (only use outside!!!!) Be sure to keep sufficient fuel canisters on hand.

Cash — When the power’s out even stores willing to stay open may need to be paid in cash, so be sure you have an emergency fund handy. Store cash in dry plastic bags. Ours was stored in a money belt in our car and the money got a little mottled. FYI Banks aren’t allowed to take moldy or disfigured currency.

Heat — If you have a gas furnace, is it the kind that runs when the electricity is off? Ours isn’t. But we do have a gas insert fireplace in one room in the house. Research best heating solutions for your situation.

Transportation — Keeping your car fully ready to get away is important. Our electric car was charged and our hybrid was charged and had a full tank of gas. All gas stations in our county were closed, and those in neighboring counties had long lines. Best to just stay put or get around on foot! Because traffic lights were out, there was a period of adjustment as people learned to treat such intersections as if they had stop signs. For the most part people were careful and courteous, and most stayed home to avoid getting in the way of mass evacuations.

Medical supplies — If you rely on equipment that needs electricity, or medicines that need to be refrigerated, you might want to get a generator of some kind. At the very least, make sure your neighbors know that you are particularly vulnerable. As a general rule, be sure to order your prescriptions enough in advance that you won’t run out during an emergency.

Were you in the dark or did you have useful solutions?
Our Petzl Tikkina coal miner headlamps made all the difference — perfect for reading and cooking in the dark. They use AAA batteries, so we stocked up on them for next time.
Little battery-operated votive candles all over the living areas gave a festive feeling and provided enough light for getting around. Besides our cellphone flashlights, we have a number of regular flashlights, and extra batteries, but we didn’t use them.

Air Quality
Although our air quality was okay, surroundings areas were affected by the smoke from the fire to the north. Do you have an N95 mask for each member of the household? To freshen the indoor air, consider adding more houseplants. Back in the 1970’s we had 22 houseplants in our tiny apartment! Not up for that? Me neither. But even a few scattered about the house might make a difference.

Sitting in meditation is a perfect activity under such circumstances. As is inner investigation — such a perfect opportunity to notice our thoughts and emotions! But most of us also want to have some other kinds of fun. In the daytime we had plenty of light so no problem doing chores, reading, writing with pen and paper, and because the weather was nice, and the air quality was not too bad we were able to do gardening. Had the smoke been intense or if it had been stormy, we would have been stuck inside.

Hiking trails were all closed due to fire danger so little walks around were best. Students reported meeting many neighbors and fellow citizens as they go around on foot.

If charging the phone is not a problem, and data is not an issue, of course there are many games, podcasts, music, etc, but why do things you can do any time? What a perfect opportunity to be completely unplugged!

The candlelight is ideal for deep conversation, making music, playing games and, um, other pleasures. And outside with the power out all over, the stargazing was wonderful.

I wanted to have a POPL party – Power Outage Potluck Party. When we had a home in Mexico, and there was an unusually long and heavy rain storm, we invited all our neighbors over for a potluck feast of whatever was in our refrigerators. It was a great festive gathering amidst the gloom.

What made life without power easier, safer, more fun for you?
Is there anything you might keep doing, even though the power’s back on? Just because you can switch on your lights and various technologies doesn’t mean you have to! Maybe establish a lights out night a week to rekindle the fun you discovered.

What do you wish you had thought to do beforehand?
While not everything was under your control, there were some things you no doubt could have done differently. While those are still fresh in your mind, make a note and then take action! This is probably the only time that you can really give it the energy, time and attention it requires. Make the most of it!

How were you in relationship to the experience?
Maybe you were afraid, depressed, lonely, impatient for it to be over, angry at someone in power, frustrated with your own lack of preparedness. This is important noticing! No need to beat yourself up about it. At the same time, it is an opportunity to discover your own capacity for patience, compassion, equanimity and other qualities that we are cultivating in our practice.

Did you have any insights?
Sometimes being out of the habituated patterns of our lives helps us to see things more clearly. It’s a kind of unexpected retreat, if we allow ourselves to be fully present for it.

A final reminder:

  • Restock whatever you used (batteries, cash, food, etc.)
  • Research solutions to any problems you encountered.
  • Retain any delight or insight you had from the experience.

Please share your experiences, suggestions and discoveries here, whether you experienced this recent event or another. Together we can assure wiser, more skillful action for all.

* The power was out in over 800,000 homes and businesses in California, not just our county. But this was the only time in my memory that our whole county was out of power.

One comment

  1. Hello Stephanie — thanks so much for your thoughtful, thought-provoking, most helpful “preparedness questionnaire” which I have enjoyed reading more than once and have shared with several friends. Important reflections as well as actions! Keep safe, keep calm & keep carrying on, if you please! xo

    Liked by 1 person

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