With summer storms already causing thousands of power outages across the country from Texas to Philadelphia, now is a good time to review your plans in case the power goes out in your neighborhood. While brief outages are simply minor inconveniences, longer periods without power can be costly, especially if you're unprepared.
First, there's the cost of lost food, which starts to spoil after the power is out for around four hours. According to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, any type of thawing meat, poultry or fish should be discarded, along with soft cheeses and dairy. For a family with a full-stocked freezer and fridge, those guidelines could easily result in $200 or more of tossed food.
The next big expense is alternate housing if your home becomes uninhabitable. During heat waves when temperatures remain above 90 degrees and there's no power for air-conditioning, stuffy homes can quickly become inhospitable. It can be hard to breathe, much less sleep. Heading to a hotel may be the only solution, especially for families with young children. (Sometimes local communities offer free public cooling centers, especially during widespread and prolonged outages.)
Incidental costs include items that keep the house lit after dark: flashlights, D batteries (stores quickly run out, so it's best to stock up in advance), candles, matches and other battery-powered equipment. Some desperate neighbors even decide to spring for generators, which can cost anywhere from $200 to well over $2,000. If your power goes out once or twice a year, as it often does for residents of the District of Columbia, that investment could eventually pay off.
Of course, these costs don't even factor into the emotional distress and health problems experienced by the most vulnerable residents: newborn babies; the elderly; and anyone going through chemotherapy or with another type of health challenge. Not everyone can make the best of the situation and carry on in 100 degree heat.
Luckily there are steps you can take to prepare for such emergencies and minimize the impact on your budget and life. Here are six ideas:
Prearrange an alternate housing plan. If you have close friends in the area, perhaps you can agree that you will host each other if your own homes become unlivable, at least for a few days. Or, research in advance to find the cheapest hotel rooms within an hour or so drive. It can be hard to do this when you have no power, and no Internet connection, so printing out an "escape route" and having it handy can be a huge help.
Stock up on dried fruits, granola bars and other pantry items. When refrigerated food goes bad, it can be hard to find an affordable meal. Items that stay fresh regardless of the power status, such as cereals, rice cakes, peanut butter and other packaged foods, can come to the rescue of rumbling stomachs.
Prepare an emergency kit. Since laundry machines no longer work once the power goes out, be sure to have at least one clean change of clothes for each family member tucked away in an emergency kit. That kit should also include comfort items, especially for children (like a teddy bear), a first-aid kit, any necessary medicine, like pain relief medication, as well as water and portable food items.
Store backup lighting. Plenty of D batteries, fully-charged flashlights and lanterns, and candles can be a lifesaver in a blackout. Once the power goes out, stores often run out of these essential supplies. A battery-powered fan could also make a hot home a bit more bearable.
Keep emergency cash hidden somewhere in your home. Credit cards and ATMs can stop working during emergencies as well, and you might need money for a quick getaway, or to purchase food and water.
Make copies of essential documents. If you have to leave your home in a hurry, as residents evacuated for tornadoes, fires or floods sometimes must, then you might not have time to sort through file folders. That's why it can be useful to keep a copy of any insurance information, contact information for friends and family members, identification and other important papers in a portable file folder.
With a little prep work, power outages -- while still incredibly inconvenient -- can end up taking a smaller toll on our bank accounts.
More From US News & World Report