The Day the Lights Went Out in Seattle
The Seattle Windstorm - December, 2006
by Nikki Willhite
Seattle is a very strange place to live when it comes to the
weather. Although it may be overcast and rain a lot, the
temperature is usually mild.
People in Seattle live in fear of two things- the occasional snow
storm, and summer heat. When it snows, the fact that we have
very limited snow removal equipment grinds the city to a stop,
stranding people and cars everywhere.
Very few people have air-conditioning, so if we get a heat wave,
it can be very difficult to sleep at night. Worse yet, windows
are left open, and there are always instances of intruders taking
advantage of the situation.
When the Seattle area was told to expect a severe windstorm, few
people took alarm. I don’t know if the people in Seattle just
were not listening, didn’t take it seriously, or it wasn’t given
The weather bureau knew it was coming. They even assigned it a
catastrophe claim number, a rare occurrence for this area.
The Utility companies anticipated the storm. Utility trucks came
up from CA before the storm even arrived. Later they came from
as far away as Kansas.
When the windstorm arrived, it was deadly and the damage
unprecedented.. Hurricane force winds hit the Puget Sound
region, knocking down 100-foot cedar trees, and cutting off the
power to over a million homes.
I thought I knew a lot about emergency preparation. My husband
has been on the scene shortly after almost every natural disaster
in the US for the last few decades.
I didn’t. I learned a lot with this storm during the 4 days we
went without power. This was a wake-up call for us. If we had
been hit with a severe earthquake , we could have been without
power for weeks.
We have made additional plans for future emergencies. Here are
some of the things I learned from this storm, as well as a review
of some basic emergency preparation fundamentals.
1. Have a source of heat, and lots of blankets or quilts. We
were lucky - we had a gas fireplace. Gas fireplaces work even if
the electricity goes off. However, even if you have a gas
fireplace, if there is an earthquake, the gas line would probably
rupture, and for safety reasons, one of the first things you
should do after an earthquake is to turn off the gas coming into
We always assumed we would be able to survive in this climate
even without heat if we covered up with blankets. We have
changed our mind. Except for the area right around the fireplace,
our home became a hostile environment.
We plan to buy a propane heater as a backup heat source. Propane
has an indefinite storage life, and can also be used for cooking.
Generators work great, but they make a lot of noise, and must be
placed outside. They also need gas, which doesn't store well,
and is hard to find during a crisis situation.
When I called to get my cable restored, the cable operator told
me that he had a generator when the storm started, and had taken
several extra people into his home to keep warm. However, when
he went out to look for food, it was stolen. Generators are
easily located because of the noise they make, and easily stolen
as they must be kept outside.
2. Stay in your home during a windstorm. Many of the fatalities
that occurred during our storm were from trees that fell on people
while they were driving. Your home is a lot safer than your
3. Do not use a generator inside. Do not use charcoal inside.
Both will kill you. If you have neighbors that do not speak
English, let them know this. as they seem to be most vulnerable.
Most of the deaths that occurred here from carbon monoxide poising
were non-English speaking people.
4. Do not go into a basement that does not have a window as a
2nd exit if there is any danger of flooding. Most basements, by
law, must have at least 2 exits. One of the deaths we had in
this area was a woman who got trapped in her basement by water
flooding down her stairs. She couldn't get out.
Her screams were heard, but no one could get to her because of
the water pressure on the basement door. When the fire
department reached her, they had to cut a hole in the floor to
try and rescue her, but by then it was too late.
5. One of the most sought after items was D batteries for
flashlight and radios. Have a portable radio that takes
batteries, as this will be your only source of knowledge as to
what is happening in your area. It will also help relieve some
of the boredom of waiting, and waiting, for your lives to return
6. Keep some cash in your home. When the power is out, the cash
machines will not function. Keep smaller bills, so that you
won't be caught in a situation where you have to hand over a $20
bill for a $1.00 bottle of water.
7. Do not believe everything you hear on the radio.
Pathetically, representatives from various charity organizations
came on the radio and gave out phone numbers to help people that
were totally useless. Kuddos to our radio hosts, who ended up
tracking down these people for the correct numbers.
Many emergency shelter spokespeople couldn't even answer basic
questions, such as if you could bring your pets with you to their
shelters. They seemed to know very little about how these
facilities actually operated.
I also heard some terrible advice given out about gas fireplaces.
One lady called in wondering if her gas fireplace would work. She
saw the pilot light, but couldn't get it started. She was told
she needed electricity to get it to ignite.
This is not true. If you have a gas fireplace or stove, and you
have a pilot light, you can get your unit started.
Your gas water heater will continue making hot water, and does
not use electricity in any way- as the water is pushed through
your home from water pressure. The only reason your furnace does
not work without electricity is that it needs the fan to work in
order to push air through the vents in your home.
8. Have a source of heat to cook your food. We used a propane
stove. I have a friend who bonded with her cast iron oven and
baked bread in it! (outside). If you are thinking of buying a
fireplace insert, be sure and get one with a shelf, and you can
use that to cook your food.
9. Have a source of light. Candles are good, especially for
long outages, but lanterns that use fuel or batteries are less
dangerous. We had 2 battery operated lanterns. One used enough
batteries that you could read when it was turned on. The other
one only used 2 batteries, but was still better light than
10. Have something to do while you are waiting for the power to
return. You can feel like you are lost in time and space sitting
mummified by your fireplace for hours on end...just waiting. An
emergency activity box for children is a good idea.
11. Do not depend on help. We live in a very populated area,
yet there was nowhere to go for help of any kind in our area. The
nearest shelter was 45 minutes away.
If you do leave your home, and want to know when the power is
restored, instead of calling your neighbors or those left behind
5 times a day, potentially waking up napping children or weary
adults, call your own home. If the answering machine is working,
the power is back.
Here is a suggestion sent to me by one of the readers of The
" I decided, when I took the Red Cross Disaster Course, and ran a
shelter one time, that I would never sit in a house during a ice
or snow storm or during the summer without electricity! I'd just
offer to run a shelter where they had electricity! Since I
entered the information on all the Shelters in our county into
the computer database, I knew where the churches were with all
the nice things, like showers, Jen-Aire Ranges in the kitchen,
nice sleeping areas. Living in Lynchburg, VA and having no
electricity for 10 days, taught me that the Red Cross would not
come to rescue me. I had to call them. Once I found that out, I
was "prepared". ~Betty G"
During our emergency in Seattle, probably the most helpful people
(besides our utility crews) were our radio hosts. They spent
hours doing "people-to-people" broadcasting. Those who were
able to help others would call in with offers of help, and those
in need called in asking for help.
It was heartbreaking to hear the voices of those who were so cold
and so worried about their families. It only got worse as the
time went on, and people ran out of wood and other supplies.
The Pennypincher Ezine has a motto, taken from Ben Franklin -
"Rather to go to bed supperless than rise in debt".
I've gone to bed hungry many times, but I would eagerly rise in
debt not to have to go to bed shivering and cold.
If you haven't already done so, please make adequate preparations
for the safety and comfort of your family should disaster
No one wants to be an alarmist, but things happen. Sadly, we now
not only have to deal with natural disasters, but have an
increased risk of having our lives disrupted by the madmen of
I know it costs money, and takes up space in your home, but do
what you can so that if and when the unexpected occurs, you have
a plan. You are not alone. Plan with your family, friends and
neighbors. Work together for the security and well- being of
©Nikki Willhite About the Author: Nikki Willhite, mother of three, and
an Interior Design Graduate, is the editor of The Pennypincher Ezine and
Tightwad Tidbits Daily. Visit her at