Still without power? Here's what you need to know
Irene damaged power lines in Hampton Bays, New York, and left millions of people without power across the East Coast.
September 1st, 2011
11:58 AM ET

Still without power? Here's what you need to know

More than 1.7 million customers remained without electricity Wednesday from North Carolina to Maine as a result of Irene's wrath, the U.S. Department of Energy said.

As residents who are battling flooding and power outages enter another day without power, concerns about how they can stay connected and what they can eat and drink are becoming more of an issue.

If you haven't prepared a kit or stocked up with the appropriate foods, this is the time when things can start to get a little tricky.

So, what do you need to keep in mind during the power outage?

The big three things to focus on, according to the Red Cross, are your food, any electrical equipment, generators and being aware of carbon monoxide. Here are some tips from the FDA, USDA, CDC and The Red Cross on what to do.

Manage your electric equipment

  • Shut off, unplug unnecessary electrical equipment.
  • Shut off and disconnect any appliances (like stoves), equipment or electronics you were using when the power went out. When power comes back on, surges or spikes may damage the equipment.
  • Leave at least one light in the on position so you’ll know when the power comes back on.

When it comes to alternative power sources, beware of carbon monoxide

"The primary hazards to avoid when using alternate sources for electricity, heating or cooking are carbon monoxide poisoning, electric shock and fire," the Red Cross warns. A few tips on how to make sure you avoid coming into contact with it:

  • Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal­-burning devices inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace or any partially enclosed area. Locate units away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come indoors.
  • If you have a carbon monoxide alarm  and it sounds, move quickly to a fresh air location outdoors or by an open window or door. Call for help from the fresh air location and remain there until emergency personnel arrive to assist you.

Maintain safe drinking water

The CDC says that when power is out some water purification systems may not fully function. Therefore, the best option for drinking, cooking and cleaning yourself includes bottled, boiled and treated water. Here are the CDC's rules when it comes to water in a power outage:

  • Do not use contaminated water to wash dishes, brush your teeth, wash and prepare food, wash your hands, make ice, or make baby formula. If possible, use baby formula that does not require water.
  • Make sure bottled water comes from a safe source. If you are unsure you can always boil the bottled water. That is the best way to kill any possible harmful bacteria or parasites. Bring the water to a rolling boil for one minute and let stand before using.

Your food: What you can keep and what you should throw out

Your refrigerator will only keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened and a full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours, but only if the door remains closed. In this case, those without power have likely hit that threshold. If you don't have dry ice to keep these items from going bad, consumption may leave you susceptible to illness from spoiled food.

So what should you do now that the 48 hours has passed?

  • Eat non-perishable foods and staples after using food from the refrigerator and freezer (if you prepared it with dry ice or put it in a cooler after the 48 hours).  If food in the freezer by chance is still colder than 40° F and has ice crystals on it, you can refreeze it. If available put these items in a cooler with dry ice. (For a full list of what can be refrozen, read this USDA guide)
  • Keep all of your remaining "good" food in a dry cool area.
  • Throw away any food that was in your refrigerator or freezer and that has not been cooled using another device. If food has an unusual odor, color or texture, chuck it. The Red Cross warns "when in doubt, throw it out!"
  • Don't bother going through a taste test at this point. Even if foods may look and smell fine, if they have been stored at room temperature (because the power is no longer keeping your refrigerator or freezer cool) it can have bacteria that causes food-borne illnesses. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can cook these bacteria off. For some foods, and some bacteria, the toxins cannot be destroyed by cooking.
  • If you're unsure whether the food you have has been exposed to temperatures over the 40° F safety threshold try taking it's temperature with a food thermometer. Any food that feels warm to the touch should also be thrown out.

Check, check, check for flooding

If you're one of the people who not only has to deal with power outages but flooding in your home, you'll need to be even more careful about the food you eat.

  • Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water.
  • Inspect canned foods and discard any food in damaged cans.
  • For undamaged all-metal cans that you believe are safe, remove the labels and wash the cans with soap and hot water if you have it. Then boil the cans to eliminate bacteria.

The USDA also provides specific guidelines on what to do with specific foods. Here's the list for what food you should throw out if it has been in temperatures above 40 °F for more than 2 hours in a refrigerator:


Throw out: Raw or leftover cooked meat, poultry, fish, or seafood; soy meat substitutes; thawing meat or poultry; meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken, or egg salad; gravy, stuffing, broth;  lunch meat, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef; pizza – with any topping ; canned hams labeled "Keep Refrigerated" or opened canned meats and fish.


Throw out: Soft cheeses like blue/bleu, Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, cottage, cream, Edam, Monterey jack, ricotta, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, queso blanco, queso fresco; shredded cheese or low-fat cheese.

Save: Hard cheeses like cheddar, colby, Swiss, parmesan, provolone or Romano; processed cheese; grated parmesan or romano cheese


Throw out: Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soy milk; open baby formula and all types of eggs, custards and puddings.


Throw out: Fresh fruit or cut fruit

Save: Fruit juices and canned fruits even if they are opened; coconut, raisins, dried fruits, candied fruits or dates.


Throw out: Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradish or fish sauces (like oyster sauce); opened creamy-based dressings or opened spaghetti sauce.

Save: Peanut butter, jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles, Worcestershire, soy, barbecue or Hoisin sauces and opened vinegar-based dressings.


Throw out: Refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough; cooked pasta, rice, potatoes; pasta salads with mayonnaise or vinaigrette; fresh pasta, cheesecake,

Save: Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas, waffles, pancakes or bagels.


Throw out: Cream-filled pastries; custard,cheese filled, or chiffon pies
Save: Fruit pies


Throw out: Cooked vegetables; pre-cut, pre-washed or packaged greens;  tofu; opened vegetable juice, baked potatoes, commercial garlic in oil and potato salad.

Save: Fresh mushrooms, herbs, spices; raw vegetables;

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. oleg

    HA HAA HA HAAA HAAAA. Your electrisity is out and mine is noooooOOOoooot. I ROCK.

    September 1, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Unrepentant Westerner

    One thing that the News hasn't mentioned, is that most stores can't operate without electricity. All of their point of sale registers are tied to their computers to track inventory, and none of that works without power. In power out situations, we found that the small mom-and-pop stores are your best bet, as they are able to sell you what you need now, and catch up with the inventory later. That's a luxury that the chain stores don't have.

    September 1, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vermont Resident

      Agreed. We realized we had to pre-purchase regular and unleaded fuel, and pull out ATM cash in advance. It was frustrating for folks to have debit cards, plenty of money, and no way to purchase what was right in front of them. Larger stores were unable to open their doors for days, and their inventory system (down from no power) prevented them from handing out what eventually went bad. Local stores were MUCH more able to move realistically.

      September 1, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • joeinalabama

      Publics Super Markets are all built with generators in place, but I think they are only in the South, our Home Depot, and Lowes also had generators in place. Fuel is a problem since the tanks are under ground for the most part and without power you can't pump fuel.

      September 1, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Vermont Resident

    We froze cases of bottled water just before Irene knocked power out 120 hrs ago. We stored HALF the amount of water/ice this way and it did not melt as fast or get everything wet. We had to take the tops off all the bottles and pour a bit out of each before freezing (expands). Trick in the future is getting the freezing under way in time. We were lucky.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Vermont Resident

    Inverter lesson learned. We had two 2,000 Watt Inverters and four 12v batteries charged up. When the power went out, we wasted an important whole day futzing with BOTH inverters that have turned out to be not functioning. I wish we had tested the battery/inverter combos on our refrigerator and then again on our freezer way in advance of the power going off. We'd have replaced them before it was too late.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Vermont Resident

    Generator. 5500Watt 240V 20Amp NorthStar Generator — 270cc, 5500 Surge Watts, 4500 Rated Watts, Gasoline we found at northerntool .com for $1,500.00. Recommend getting at least three 5-gallon cans filled with fuel to go between trips to go get more gas (every two days or so). In our case, our water is in a well next to the home 240V. This generator, a not cheap extension cord, and about $400.00 of hired electrician work allowed us to ka-chunk off our main breaker, fire it up, plug it into the house, and bring the well and pressure pump online. We alternated between recharging house water system (and HW) and recharging the refrigerator and chest freezer. Bigger generator would eat fuel too fast. Smaller won't run the well. Worked out perfect for house family of 4.

    September 1, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • joeinalabama

      We had a 4 1/2 day outage, we have a generator, but fuel is a real problem, it has a storage life and most service station tanks are underground and they can't pump fuel. For the most part I think you should set up to live without a generator.
      The things that saved us was, gas grill, gas water heater (our city water stayed on), and a 400 watt inverter that I could connect to the car. The inverter would run the PC and a small flat screen TV. Our power outage wasn't predicted, a tornado took out over 100 high voltage power towers, so that makes it hard to get fuel ahead of time.
      We had no local damage from the storms just power outage, I would recommend not to let your car get below 1/4 tank. All traffic signals become 4 way stops, so travel is a little slower.

      September 1, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  6. payme


    September 1, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. WishICouldHelp

    >>> Still without power? Here's what you need to know <<<

    a) You won't be able to read this web page.

    September 1, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • joeinalabama

      When we were out for 4 and half days I used a 400 watt inverter on the car battery, would run PC, dsl modem, and 19 inch flat screen TV. If you run it until the inverter cuts off you will need jumper cables and another car to jump it from. Our cable TV, DSL, and land line phone all stayed up, the cell phones not so good.

      September 1, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mdmooser

    If they are without power how can they read this on a computer screen? Duhhhhhhhhh!

    September 1, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • joeinalabama

      Us people in the back woods have kerosene power PCs.

      September 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Cesar

    @mdmooser: with a back up generator duuhhhhhh

    September 1, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
  10. slk

    maybee it's time for a government investment into our power infrastructure?

    September 8, 2011 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
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