Disaster Prep Basics – How and Why You Need to Turn Off Your Electricity



For some of us around the country, mega-storm Sandy is thankfully a distant memory. And while my family and I escaped the brunt of it, many people were not so lucky. It was the topic of conversation during Thanksgiving Dinner at my wife’s family home in New Jersey. Luckily for them, they too were on the alee side of the storm and only got hit with lots of rain and mild flooding. But not all the family got off so easy.

My sister-in-law’s husband’s father (did you follow that?) lost power for five days and my father-in-law had to evacuate from his home in Ventnor, a suburb of Atlantic City. They had mild flooding in their garage and basement, but luckily for them their property sits up fairly high. However, a friend of theirs was not so lucky. She, we’ll call her Susie Q, decided not to evacuate from Atlantic City, and if you saw Chris Christie’s public chastisement of the Atlantic City mayor you may know why.

Well Susie Q apparently scoffed at the idea of evacuating thinking that she’d weather the storm like previous ones. Man was she mistaken. As Sandy pounded the Jersey Shore, the tidewaters rose. It wasn’t long before Susie Q’s basement began to flood. In no time at all her basement was completely flooded and the water began to rise up through the floorboards. Along with the water were sparks. Yep, the electricity was left on because if you’re staying you apparently need to be able to watch TV. So as water is flooding the first floor and sparks are shooting up from the floor boards, no doubt from junction boxes in the floor, Susie Q made her way to the roof. With no idea how high the water might get and or what might become of the sparks or current that could pulse through the water Suz had no choice but to call for help and crawl out on the roof of her home in the middle of Sandy and wait for rescue. That’s no bueno folks, no bueno!

Let’s start here

So what could she have done differently? Well namely, evacuate like most of the other people in her town. I know it’s a novel concept to actually listen to what the authorities suggest, but come on Susie. Along with evacuating as she should have, Sue should have turned off her electricity as well. I know she felt she needed it for staying there but in a perfect world she would have left and turned off the juice as she did. Once a house is in immediate danger of flooding, it’s not a bad idea to think about turning off the power. Generally water and electricity don’t go well together.

You may ask why, which is a valid question. It really doesn’t matter if sparks fly when no one is home to be zapped right? Well maybe, but those sparks could have easily turned into a fire. A family friend’s brother lost his restaurant of 25 years due to an electrical fire that started a couple houses down during Sandy. Con Edison, one of the electrical utilities in New York City purposely cut power to thousands of homes to prevent electrical fires. By turning off the electricity, you prevent sparks if the house is flooded. Aside from fire, submerged electrical can also be a threat to neighbors or first responders.

The big ones at the top usually turn off the power

Of course this won’t prevent sparks and fires from occurring outside the house, but at least you’ve done what you can to prevent this kind of accident in su casa (or, Sue’s casa).  The even nicer thing is that unlike turning off the gas, which may require special tools, knowing where the valve is, and, in some jurisdictions, someone licensed to turn it back on, electricity is as simple as flipping the switch off. The main breaker, which has always been on top of the breaker panel every time I’ve seen it, is the one breaker to rule them all. Once flipped, there is generally no electricity throughout the house, as my Jersey compatriots might say; bada bing, bada boom. This doesn’t do anything for what may happen outside your house but at least you can prevent some shocking event from occurring inside.

Of course there are some downsides to shutting off your power. For example, if you shut down your power, your refrigerator stops working and all your food in the fridge will likely go bad (especially if you evacuate for over a week like my father-in-law and his family had to). If that’s a concern, which it would be for most of us, you can start whittling down your perishable food stock when the storm is on its way and then take as much as you can when you evacuate. It’s definitely not ideal but at least you may be able to use some of your food prior to leaving home. We’d also suggest leaving plenty of non-perishable emergency reserves in case evacuation plans change or you are forced to stay at your home. Depending on what you use for heat, you may also lose your ability to heat the home. If you need to shut off power at night, make sure you have plenty of emergency lighting available as well.

This probably goes without saying, but don’t run through a flooded basement to flip off the circuit breaker. Standing in water when working around electrical current generally turns out very badly. Power should only be shut off if you’ve adequately weighed the pros and cons of doing so, and you’re able to safely access the breaker panel without risking zapping yourself. It’s also a good idea to turn off all electrical appliances, electronics, etc. prior to shutting things off. Disaster situations are highly dynamic events, but not all safety tips are advisable in all situations. When in doubt, it’s usually best to defer to what local officials are suggesting. Most importantly, try not to be the Susie on the rooftop who ignored evacuation recommendations.

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Comments

  1. Alright so here was my situation. During hurricane Lee a little over a year ago. I woke up to 17″ in the basement. Never even thought about the electric being on but had to get some pumps down there. The furnace, water heater and dehumidifier were all toast although the freezer was still working fine. It wasn’t until I got out of the water that I was thinking why the hell didn’t I get electrocuted along with the other 2 guys that brought the pumps over. The humidifier was definitely plugged in and floating like a dead corpse…the furnace blower motor was under water and that’s some serious amperage…not one circuit breaker had flipped off. The only explanation I could come up with was that the water was so expansive (ie the water seeped up from the ground which meant that the water was that high everywhere in the neighborhood) and that it was too expansive to carry enough electricity or the water itself acted as a ground.

    • Wow, sorry to hear about the flooding woes Todd. Happy to hear you lived to tell the tale, but we’re still sticking with our “don’t swim with electricity” recommendations! ;)

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