Tropical Storm Isaias’ strong winds knocked out power to vast swaths of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast on Tuesday, plunging millions of people into the dark as the storm raced north. Wind gusts as high as 70 MPH covered the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor, putting strain on the region’s old trees and pushing many to their breaking point. A widespread power outage remains one of the greatest threats when a strong tropical system makes landfall, and it’s a threat that many folks are woefully unprepared for until the lights go out and it’s too late.
Isaias wasn’t a ‘classic’ tropical system. The storm struggled mightily from its beginnings as a disturbance in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. It constantly defied the odds and maintained its strength all the way to the southeast coast, getting its act together at the last possible moment before roaring ashore near Wilmington, North Carolina, with maximum winds of 85 MPH.
Most systems weaken considerably once they lose the energy provided to them by warm waters, but not Isaias. This system came ashore near a trough in the jet stream that wound up helping the storm maintain its composure, allowing it to very slowly unwind as it raced up the eastern seaboard toward New England. Since the storm didn’t weaken much, an intense wind field dragged over many of the densely populated communities that dot Interstate 95 between North Carolina and Maine.
Gusts of 60 to 70 MPH were common across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as the core of Isaias passed through the region. New York City’s JFK Airport reported sustained winds of 51 MPH with a gust to 70 MPH during the height of the storm.
Millions of customers lost electricity as a result of strong winds knocking down power lines and trees unaccustomed to withstanding the stress of such a storm. As of late Tuesday afternoon, almost 35 percent of all households and businesses in the state of New Jersey were without power, according to PowerOutage.US. The power outage tracking site found nearly 3,000,000 customers without power along Isaias’ path on Tuesday evening, with more outages likely as the storm speeds through New England.
The last few hurricane seasons have ingrained in us the importance of paying attention to the threat for freshwater flooding from persistent heavy rains. Flash flooding is the leading cause of death in landfalling tropical cyclones in the United States, a threat highlighted by the historic deluges of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.
But it’s not only the water that’s worth close attention and preparation. Landfalling tropical cyclones can lead to widespread and long-lasting power outages that can extend hundreds of miles inland from the point of landfall, affecting people who never thought that they’d feel the effects of a storm that came ashore so far away.
Preparing for an extended power outage isn’t something many of us actively think about, and it’s even farther in the back of the mind for communities that are far inland. We’ve still got the bulk of hurricane season to get through. Consider using this storm as a practice run for all the storms we could see later on this summer and fall so that future storm-induced power outages aren’t a shocking disruption.
Here are some tips to help you get by the next time the lights go out:
- Food: Non-perishable food is great to have on hand no matter what season it is. It’s easy to overlook ready-to-eat meals until you can’t cook anything and nothing you’ve got is ready to eat. Canned pasta, fruit cups, canned meat (think Spam), and dry cereal all have a long shelf life and they don’t require refrigeration or cooking before you can eat them.
- Water: Having water on hand is less of an issue in cities and suburbs than it is in rural areas, where many folks utilize well water, but it’s still good to have on hand in case the power goes out and the storm disrupts municipal water supplies. Keep a reserve of bottled water (or jugged tap water) for drinking and keep a separate reserve for flushing toilets and washing hands—filling up the bathtub is great for the latter.
- Flashlights: Candles are dangerous around children, pets, and at night when folks run the risk of falling asleep and leaving an open flame unattended. Invest in some actual, old-fashioned flashlights and plenty of spare batteries to power them. The flashlight feature on smartphones is great, but not for long-term use. It’ll drain your battery before you know it and then you’ll find yourself stuck in the dark and stuck without a means of communication, to boot.
- Cell Phone Batteries: A cell phone is a lifeline in an emergency. It’s tough to nurse a phone’s battery life during a regular day’s use, and it’s even harder when the power goes out. Thankfully, spare charging packs are relatively cheap now. It’s not a bad idea to buy a reliable battery pack that can give your devices one or two extra charges to get you through a power outage.
- Gas: Filling up your vehicle ahead of a bad storm is almost an instinct for folks who live near the coast. Many gas stations will shut down when the power is out. You don’t want to get stranded at home or out on the road after a bad storm.
- Money: It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to whip out your debit or credit card and buy anything at the grocery store if the power is out. Some stores, especially smaller ones, can still operate without electricity, offering services to folks paying with cash only. If you can afford it, having some actual cash on hand could help in a pinch during a lengthy power outage.
- Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Lots of folks use grills and gas-powered generators when the power goes out. These are great tools when they’re operated safely, but (let’s be honest) safe operation isn’t always the case. Any type of grill or machine that emits exhaust should be used at least 20 feet away from structures in an open, well-ventilated spot outdoors. Carbon monoxide alarms with battery backup can alert you if toxic fumes are building up in the house.