Blackout Days

How to Survive a Power Outage in Seattle

Grab a flashlight and don't panic.

By Allison Williams November 15, 2021

Are you reading this by the waning power of your phone while every light in your home has gone dim? Or heard dire predictions from weather people about an onslaught of broken tree limbs and downed power lines? Welcome. It's going to be okay.

We're lucky; various lists of states with the most power loss don't usually include Washington (sorry, Maine), but of course it happens. "This is definitely the season, October to February," says Nathan MacDonald, a senior public relations specialist at Seattle City Light, citing wind and snowstorms as the most common power destroyers. Here's how to weather it.

Prepare for Power Outages Ahead of Time 

I know, I know. If you're already in the dark, this is of no help. But for everyone else—or for next time—don't forget the obvious. Own a flashlight or headlamp (and stash it somewhere you can access in low light); keep nonperishable food and warm blankets at hand if your heat depends on electricity.

How do you know if dark days are on the horizon? Public utility Seattle City Light—who covers nearly a million Puget Sound residents—notes that causes stem from scheduled maintenance, failed technology, human error, or natural causes. A 2014 city document noted that about half the city's unplanned outages come from falling trees or branches. While lines run underground in downtown, First Hill, and the University District, the rest of the city has vulnerable aboveground lines.

Look for windy days in the forecast, or the days after a snowstorm, when melting snow leads to snapped tree branches, says MacDonald. Any local weatherperson will mention upcoming storms, but follow the National Weather Service's Seattle Twitter account for current information.

Another good follow: Seattle's Office of Emergency Management.

Report and Track Seattle Power Outages

Okay, the lights went out. Now what? If you have a working cell phone, track Seattle City Light's current issues on their outage map. Report your power loss by calling 206-684-3000. If you have a landline—ask your elders, Zoomers—it should still work as long as it isn't connected to an electronic unit.

Seattle's network of community news sources can be useful as well (especially if you want to see snapshots of power line carnage); the Twitter account for Capitol Hill Seattle catalogues sightings of downed lines, and West Seattle Blog's Twitter tracks the broken tree limbs and wind advisories from Alki down to White Center. Other neighborhood outlets: Ravenna Blog on Twitter and My Ballard on Twitter, which includes Fremont, Phinney, and Greenwood.

If you physically see a downed power line, skip the report number and go straight to 911. When spotting one in (or on!) your car, stay inside the vehicle unless there's a fire.

Eat and Drink Safely During a Seattle Power Outage

Why is it that the moment the lights go out, the munchies hit? Unfortunately, you're better off not touching the refrigerator door; keep it closed to preserve food. But note that after only four hours, perishable items can start to spoil. No judgment if you decide to go ham on all the ice cream in your freezer.

A camping stove or charcoal grill can make hot coffee a reality, but lighting it up inside can be disastrous. Besides risking a fire, it can emit deadly carbon monoxide; all stoves should be used outdoors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that during widespread power outages, water purification operations may be down as well. Watch news sources for a boil water order, which really means you shouldn't drink tap water untreated.

Stay Bright and Warm During a Power Outage

Fortunately for us, Seattle has camping equipment coming out our ears. While stocking up on illumination, consider something that disperses enough light for a card game (say, a lighthouse-inspired Eddie Bauer lantern) as well as a focused headlamp bright enough to peer into windowless corners (REI has a ton). Fuel-powered lanterns go by the same rule as camp stoves: outdoors only.

Close doors and windows to retain heat, and bundle up; the rise of electric-run heat pumps in Seattle means that a lack of power can mean a chilly night. Gather in one room if necessary, and if you take to your car, don't run it in the garage. Oh, and don't use generators indoors and don't use a gas oven to bring the heat. (Minimize candle use; the last thing you want is a fire.)

If you planned on relying on solar chargers to keep things topped off, well, we have some bad news about the amount of sun during Seattle storm season. Much better: a charged battery pack large or small. And turn off light switches and unplug valuable electronics in case there's a surge when power returns.

Seattle City Light also operates a Life Support Equipment Program for people using crucial devices; they'll take special care to alert users for planned outages and can help during the unplanned ones. Customers certify through a physician.

Operate Your Garage Door

If your car is stuck inside, you're not out of luck. Look for a red rope of some kind hanging from the garage door opener; it's an emergency release that disconnects the automatic portion. Try pulling it away from the garage opening, and only do this when the door is fully closed. Once it's disengaged, you should be able to manually lift the door—easy to do if your springs are in working order. 

Entertain Yourself

When the power's out, channel your pioneer ancestors and break out Cards Against Humanity, or any one of these Seattle stores' favorite board and card games. Catch up on the 20 books every Seattleite should read. If your phone is fully charged, dig into some of our favorite longform features.

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