Tips for staying safe and warm during power outages

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 | 2:37 p.m. CST; updated 10:34 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 27, 2013

COLUMBIA — Tuesday's heavy, wet snow left thousands of Boone Electric Cooperative customers without power for extended periods.

Low temperatures, long outages and a lack of electricity mean rotting food, cold nights and darkness for many in Boone County.

Are you looking for shelter?

Broadway Christian Church will probably be open to provide shelter for those without power on Wednesday night, but volunteers want to know how many people plan to use the service. If you are interested, call Martina Pounds, public information officer for the Office of Emergency Management, at 489-4945.

Here are some tips for staying safe during the outages.

What to do with the food in the fridge:

As long as the door is opened sparingly — or not at all — food should be safe inside the refrigerator for up to four hours, said Genalee Alexander, spokeswoman for Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services. Food can be stored longer in coolers set outside.

Residents should be especially cautious of perishable foods such as mayonnaise, salad dressing, eggs, chicken and milk, Alexander said.

"If they've been above 40 degrees for more than two hours, they need to be thrown away," she said.

Freezer items have more time. Food can stay in a freezer that's not running for up to 48 hours before posing a health risk, Alexander said. So, hang onto the Hot Pockets, but dump the Miracle Whip.

All that food can start to smell. To clean odors from the fridge and freezer, the Food Safety and Inspection Service says food should be thrown out, shelves washed and the interior scrubbed with baking soda. Leave the door open for 15 minutes to allow the air to circulate.

How to stay warm:

Households with multiple people can stay warmer by gathering in a small space while waiting for the power to turn on, Alexander said. Because the outage is not countywide, residents without power can seek shelter and warmth at the houses of friends and family, she said.

If that isn't an option, there are warming centers open during the day, according the Public Health and Human Services Facebook. Broadway Christian Church at 2601 West Broadway opened its doors to those without power on Tuesday night, but only one resident showed up. The church will probably be open Wednesday night, said Martina Pounds, public information officer for the Office of Emergency Management. 

With the low temperatures, there is a risk of overexertion for people with and without electricity.

"The body has to work extra hard in the cold," Alexander said.

To keep the cold out, put curtains or blankets on windows and seal doors, she said. During the day, however, don't block windows that face the sun.

How to safely use a generator:

If a generator is available, proper use of it is key to staying safe. Keep generators outside — not in a garage —and away from doors, windows and vents. Generators running inside can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, Alexander said.

Do not plug a generator into any wall outlet. This process, known as "backfeed," can electrocute utility works and others using the same utility transformer, according to the U.S. Fire Administration's website.

Generators should be kept dry and under a shelter, according to the website.

A video, created by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, said generators should be kept outside and far away from doors and windows. The video also recommends installing a battery-operated carbon monoxide alarm in the house, near sleeping areas.

Boone Electric Cooperative still had 4,600 members without power across the county as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Cooperative's Facebook page.

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