After a sudden disaster, it’s not uncommon to have a prolonged interruption of utility services. Electricity, water, and natural gas flow to our homes, and sewage and trash get taken away. We take for granted how finely tuned and efficient these systems are. Just last week, I was running out of my house in my bathrobe to get my trashcans out to the curb when I heard the trash truck coming down the street. I’m sure you can relate. Have you ever considered your plans if the grid were down and there was no trash pickup? What happens, however, when one or more of these systems fail? How and why do they fail? What does that mean to us, and most importantly, how should we prepare for these potential issues? We’ll try to answer all of these questions in this video. Here, I’ll tell you how these vital services can fail, what items you should have in place, and I’ll finish with a couple of real-world examples, one, in particular, being a personal story. So let’s examine the utility systems and where they are susceptible to failure.
It’s pretty incredible. You flip a switch, a circuit is activated, and you nearly instantly have a light, running fan, or stove. Even without our action, our refrigerators are kept cold, traffic lights change, and pumping stations move resources and waste. It’s so efficient that we often take it for granted, yet it’s one of the first systems to fail after a disaster.
On August 14, 2003, a high-voltage power line in northern Ohio caused a shutdown after brushing against overgrown trees. The failure to trigger an alarm led to three more lines sagging into trees within an hour and a half, resulting in a massive blackout that affected 50 million people across southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states. The outage caused at least 11 deaths and incurred an estimated cost of $6 billion. On February 15, 2021, the Texas electrical grid experienced a devastating breakdown due to cold and a snowstorm. The frigid conditions caused a series of events that plunged millions of Texans into darkness and freezing temperatures, leading to multiple fatalities, and exposing the vulnerability of equipment unprepared for extreme cold. In 2017 and 2018, equipment owned by another California utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, was blamed for causing a series of wildfires that killed more than 120 people and destroyed more than 27,000 homes and other buildings. Some communities were wiped out in mere minutes, and hundreds of thousands were left without power.
I could list hundreds of more examples. Many are natural disaster-related, some due to human error, some intentional attacks, and some cyberattacks. Most commonly, electrical outages are often due to failing equipment. After all, most of the U.S. electric grid was built in the 1960s and 1970s. Over 70% of the U.S. electricity grid is over 25 years old. It was designed for different weather that has increasingly changed in the last several years as we’ve witnessed more extreme highs and lows. It will absolutely fail at some point in your area. That’s a given. The question is, really, for how long and what will be affected?
Without any backup electrical power in your home, you will immediately note the lights don’t work. Though the clocks may have all stopped, there’s a timer that sort of started on your refrigerator and freezer. If the doors stay closed, general guidelines from the Center for Disease Control indicate food will remain safe for up to: 4 hours in a refrigerator, 48 hours in a full freezer, and 24 hours in a half-full freezer. Depending on the food, it may have a longer, unrefrigerated life. I always suggest people put half-filled plastic bottles in their freezers. If the power goes out for more than 4 hours, this will buy you more time as the ice melts. In a heatwave, they will be extra beneficial to keep you cooler and hydrated. We just released a video recently discussing how to stay cool in the summer and we’ve done plenty of videos on staying warm in the winter without power. Still, you will need a plan to prepare, cook, and eat food before it goes bad. Much of that cooking and prep may rely on electricity, so you must factor this into your plans. You will also need a source of light and communication with the outside world, like a radio. You won’t be able to rely on the internet, cell towers, or cable television.
I started with electricity in this analysis of service interruptions because so many of the other systems rely upon electricity, from pumping stations to traffic lights and switchers. Natural gas is one of those systems. Many natural gas lines have gas generators at major stations to keep the pipeline transmission system pressurized, but it isn’t ubiquitous. Many people erroneously assume that the natural gas system will still work after a disaster that robs everyone of electricity. I see this expressed repeatedly on several websites, but it is dangerously not true. It is a slightly more reliable system, but it’s far from guaranteed. Across the 220,000 miles of high-strength steel pipe, 20 inches to 42 inches in diameter, there are the large main stations, compressor stations every 75 to 100 miles to boost the pressure, and urban areas with additional gas distribution stations. Not all of those run pumps on natural gas. Most use electricity.
Then there are also the automatic shutoff valves triggered by either earthquakes or pressure irregularities like a massive spike or decrease in pressure. If there is a line break, as may occur after a natural disaster, gas is interrupted or shut down to prevent possible explosions. These valves are designed to automatically stop or restrict natural gas flow in an emergency, such as a pipeline rupture, excessive pressure, or a sudden drop in pressure. Automatic shutoff valves play a critical role in ensuring the safety and integrity of natural gas distribution systems by quickly isolating the affected section of the pipeline and minimizing the risk of accidents or further damage. Most of these safety sensors rely upon electric sensors to judge the safety of restoring the flow and may require a human to restart them manually.
If you live along a line solely powered by natural gas, barring any breaks in the lines, you should still have some pressure and flow. More than likely, you will not have natural gas. If your water heater, clothes dryer, heater, boiler, oven, stovetop, generator, firepit, or grill are connected to the natural gas lines, they likely aren’t going to be working anymore. There’s also a significant safety issue if pipes are broken after a disaster. Know how to shut off the natural gas line to your house and have the tool to do so near your gas meter. If you rely upon natural gas to cook or heat your home, the two most critical uses, you’ll need a different means. You won’t be able to switch to propane without a conversion kit installed because of differences in pressure, flow, and regulation between gasses.
The municipal water supply is slightly more reliable as far as flowing to your home. City water is typically stored in elevated water towers and distributed to homes through gravity. In the event of a power outage, only the water stored in the towers will be accessible, as water flow into homes relies on the pumping system feeding those towers, which requires electricity. That’s the good news, but only about an average day’s worth of water for a community is typically stored in towers. Many disasters can adversely impact the municipal water supply. Water treatment plants that render raw or reclaimed water drinkable or potable can’t operate efficiently without electricity. Floods and excessive rains can cause pollutants and sewage to flow into clean water pipes and supplies. After a flood, even well water can become tainted. Major disasters can break water lines and prevent water from flowing further down the line. And as many experienced in Texas during the snowmaggedon, lines will freeze and water won’t flow to their homes.
Immediately before disaster strikes or right after, filling all bathtubs, sinks, and extra containers is a good idea. An emergency bathtub bladder can be deployed in a bathtub to provide between 65-100 gallons of drinkable water before lines are tainted or stop flowing. After that, you must follow emergency announcements and your senses to monitor water safety. If the water looks or smells funny, you will want to treat it before use, even without official notice. Expect that water may be tainted after a major disaster or one that stretches into 6 hours or more.
In addition to at least one gallon of stored water per day for each person and pet in your home, you will need a means to filter, treat, and purify water, even if it flows well from your tap. When the water goes out in a community, it’s the first resource people truly realize they desperately need. That realization will come to them within the first 72 hours after a disaster. Without electricity or natural gas, many will be forced to drink unclean water, which could harbor harmful viruses, amoebas, or bacteria. You can probably get by without electricity or natural gas, but you will quickly find yourself in a desperate situation without water. Because of this, I have several videos on this subject, from proper storage to myths you sometimes here, that I will link to below. I’ll provide a link to those videos in the description and comment section below.
Without flowing water, sewer systems will not operate well if at all. Liquid waste will still spill over into the system, but solid waste will need supplemental water to flush. With water as a precious resource, if it looks to be a prolonged aftermath of a disaster, I wouldn’t waste water by flushing it down the toilet. This is another area where I have a video or two on the topic, so I will link to one in the comments below. After a disaster, sewer lines can break, be flooded, or even backflow into clean systems or your home. It also quickly piles up because people don’t stop creating waste just because of a disaster. Less than a drop of human waste in your water supply can lead to disaster for many. Contaminated water and inadequate sanitation are connected to the spread of diseases like cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.
Your sewer system is probably the most reliable of the infrastructure systems covered, but it’s far from guaranteed. Even if yours is operating fine, if it’s tied to other people’s systems, you could experience problems. If significant flooding is involved in your disaster, you will experience problems. Have a plan to safely remove or contain human waste for an extended period after any disaster. We did a video detailing how to handle human waste after a disaster which I’d recommend you watch if you haven’t put together a plan yet.
You tend to notice very quickly when trash pickup services stop. Modern humans create a lot of waste materials. While cardboard and other packaging won’t attract rodents right away or stink or become toxic, remember that without electricity, food will be turning bad. People will dispose of this food in their trash cans. Municipal trash cans are only designed to hold a typical week’s garbage. Without electricity, drivers won’t be navigating the streets and traffic lights to get to your house to pick up your garbage. The trash will pile up everywhere. That’s just a minor problem in the first week, but in the second and third weeks and after, it becomes a significant community health problem. If you add high temperatures or heavy rain to the mix, the timeline to a health emergency rapidly accelerates. I always suggest trashbags as a necessary prep.
Beyond the typical kitchen trash bag, contractor-grade trash bags are your best bet because they are sturdier and less susceptible to breaking. Trash bags can also be repurposed to protect you from the rain or to transport items securely. Bag your trash as densely as possible, seal it, and remove it from your livable area. If it’s not safe to remove it from your home, burn it, bury it, or contain it in an outbuilding, you should store it in an unused area of your home until it can be removed safely.
HOW IT BREAKS DOWN
If you watch my video, How to Survive the First 90 Days After the Collapse, linked in the comments below, you’ll understand how these systems fail and in what order. The first to be noticed is electricity. You have to keep in mind what is required to generate electricity. Fossil fuel power plants utilize coal or oil as fuel sources, employing combustion to produce heat. This heat is subsequently used to create steam, which powers turbines that, in turn, produce electricity. After a disaster, the fossil fuels required to generate the steam may not be delivered. That means the plant must operate solely on its limited reserves. Also, understand that the three main parts of the electrical grid–generation, a high voltage transmission grid, and a distribution system– require large and small components that must be replaced if they are damaged or fail. A shockingly high number of these components are sourced from China. Any significant disruption in the supply chain, from impassable roads to global conflicts, could leave power plants operating at decreased efficiency or not at all for an unknown duration.
Not having electricity is just an inconvenience initially, but refrigerated foods can spoil in just a few hours. After 8 hours or more, people will begin to understand that traffic lights, emergency services, and police are all stymied. So electricity is a big one, but along with it, you may also experience, almost immediately, an interruption of natural gas and water.
The first day without these services is more of an inconvenience to many, and people tend to hole up in their homes. Some even have community barbecues as they use their propane and charcoal barbecues to cook up all that meat in their freezer, turning bad by the minute. That feeling of camaraderie and community can last into the second day and part of the third, but things begin to devolve rather quickly by the third day. The stench of trash and human waste piling up compounds the stress and anxiety many feel. How bad it gets from there directly correlates to people’s sense of relief efforts. If hope is on the horizon and bridges and roads are clear and flowing with fresh water and food being trucked in, then things will probably right themselves. If that isn’t happening, people will begin to take what they need to survive by whatever means necessary.
As early as the first day, grocery stores may be unable to transact and sell food, and trucks may not be able to deliver food. Grocery stores don’t hold enough food to feed an entire community for several days after a disaster, anyways. When the power goes out, restaurants will be closed. You must rely upon your stored food and cooking and food prep skills. Even if you have a good skill set with these and ample supplies, it isn’t likely all your neighbors are similarly skilled and supplied.
As a rule, one day is generally okay. After a few days, people come together. A week or more, and it will either be relief workers or someone else at your door. I don’t want to alarm you, but I must be honest. Even if you have plugged in a few solutions when these critical infrastructure utilities go offline, that doesn’t mean your neighbors have. I also don’t go into great detail about other infrastructure systems impacted by these outages, like hospitals, trucking, food supplies, etcetera. We really take for granted what happens when we flick a light switch or open a tap on our sink.
During the lockdowns, when we faced a huge unknown with COVID, I had a friend who worked at the desalination water plant in Carlsbad, California. He and his fellow employees were required to stay on the job and sleep at the plant at the start of the lockdowns because their jobs were too critical to allow them to come home and risk exposure to the illness. I sometimes think about that, but I also think about how essential one person’s job may be to an entire community. One person can be the linchpin to a whole infrastructure system, so what happens if that person can’t be found after a disaster? When one infrastructure system fails, it can cascade into a collapse of multiple systems. At the least, it puts a significant strain on those other systems.
In New Orleans, after Katrina, many police officers didn’t report to their jobs because they decided instead to stay home and protect their families. I often think of that, too, as a reminder not to be overly dependent on others to assist me after a disaster. When one of these primary utility infrastructure systems goes down, it will be up to you, and you alone, whether or not you will make it through. Sure, there will be repairmen deployed to fix the system. There will be police, fire, and medical personnel continuing to do their best in the face of the worst of it all. There may even be outside relief and support from the State and Federal levels. None of these are guaranteed, however, and the loss of what you take for granted now is measured in minutes and precious hours until it is hopefully restored.
Please take the time to create an actionable plan for losing each of these critical utility infrastructure systems. Again, I’ll post links below on practical videos to detail with these issues.
As always, stay safe out there.
NATURAL GAS: How to cook after a disaster (cookware and utensils)