This information has been reviewed and adapted for use in South Carolina by P.H. Schmutz, HGIC Food Safety Specialist, and E.H. Hoyle, Extension Food Safety Specialist, Clemson University. (New 04/99. Revised 09/04.)
If you live in an area where loss of electricity from seasonal storms is a problem, you can plan ahead to be prepared for the worst. Keep your freezer as full as possible by freezing water in plastic containers and using them to fill any empty spaces not occupied by frozen food. Keep a clean cooler on hand. Buy freeze-pak inserts and keep them frozen for use in the cooler. Know in advance where you can buy dry and block ice. Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer at all times to see if food is being stored at safe temperatures (34 to 40 °F for the refrigerator; 0 °F for the freezer).
Food and Water in a Tornado: In an area sustaining tornado damage, the water supply may be disrupted or contaminated. Food in damaged buildings may be hazardous.
Make Sure Your Water Is Safe: After a major storm, listen to a local radio or television station for announcements from appropriate authorities about the safety of drinking water. You can drink water from the community water system unless you have been told or have reason to suspect it has become contaminated. Do not use water that has a dark color, an odor or that contains floating material. If the water is contaminated:
If you need to find drinking water outside your home, you can use rainwater, streams, rivers and other moving bodies of water, ponds and lakes, and natural springs. If you question its purity, be sure to treat the water first. Use saltwater only if you distill it first. Do NOT drink floodwater.
Treating Water: Treat water for drinking, cooking, washing utensils, and cleaning kitchen and bath-room surfaces only if it is of questionable quality. Also treat the water used for washing hands and bathing. Always use clean or treated water to wash any parts of the body that have come in contact with surfaces contaminated by floodwaters. There are several ways to treat water, but none is perfect. The best solution is often a combination of methods.
As during other types of disasters, electricity to the refrigerator and freezer may be off. The key to determine the safety of foods in the refrigerator and freezer is how cold they are since most foodborne illness is caused by bacteria that multiply rapidly at temperatures above 40 °F.
Leave the Freezer Door Closed: A full freezer should keep food safe about two days; a half-full freezer, about a day. Add bags of ice or dry ice to the freezer if it appears the power will be off for an extended time. You can safely refreeze thawed foods that still contain ice crystals or feel cold to the touch.
Refrigerated Items: These foods should be safe as long as the power is out no more than about four to six hours. Discard any perishable food that has been above 40 °F for two hours or more and any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture. Leave the door closed; every time you open it, needed cold air escapes causing the foods inside to reach unsafe temperatures.
If it appears the power will be off more than six hours, transfer refrigerated perishable foods to an insulated cooler filled with ice or frozen gel packs. Keep a thermometer in the cooler to be sure the food stays at 40 °F or below.
Never Taste Food to Determine Its Safety: Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they’ve been at room temperature longer than two hours, bacteria able to cause foodborne illness can begin to multi-ply very rapidly. Some types will produce toxins, which are not destroyed by cooking and can possibly cause illness.
Use the following "Power Out" chart to decide which foods are safe to use or refreeze when power is restored.
Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator (40 °F) and freezer (0 °F) at all times to see if food is being stored at a safe temperature.
Discard: The following foods should be discarded if kept over two hours at above 40 °F.
Save: The following foods should keep at room temperature a few days. Still, discard anything that turns moldy or has an unusual odor.
Refreeze: Thawed foods that still contain ice crystals or feel cold may be refrozen.
After a storm has knocked out electricity or gas lines, cooking meals can be a problem and even hazardous if a few basic rules are not followed. When cooking is not possible, many canned foods can be eaten cold.
Charcoal or gas grills are the most obvious alternative sources of heat for cooking. NEVER USE THEM INDOORS. In doing so you risk both asphyxiation from carbon monoxide and the chance of starting a fire that could destroy your home. Likewise, camp stoves that use gasoline or solid fuel should always be used outdoors. Small electrical appliances can be used to prepare meals if you have access to an electrical generator.
Wood can be used for cooking in many situations. You can cook in a fireplace if the chimney is sound. Don’t start a fire in a fireplace that has a broken chimney. Be sure the damper is open. If you’re cooking on a wood stove, make sure the stovepipe has not been damaged.
If you have to build a fire outside, build it away from buildings; never in a carport. Sparks can easily get into the ceiling and start a house fire. Make sure any fire is well-contained. A metal drum or stones around the fire bed are good precautions. A charcoal grill is a good place in which to build a wood fire. Never use gasoline to get a wood or charcoal fire started. Be sure to put out any fire when you are through with it.
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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.