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Category: Preparing for Emergencies

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 donít know if the people in Seattle just were not listening, didnít take it seriously, or it wasnít given enough coverage.

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 didnít. 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 your home.

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 car.

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 to normal.

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 candles.

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 Pennypincher:

" 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 strike.

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 other countries.

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 your families.

©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


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Category: Preparing for Emergencies

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