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What to do if the power goes out this winter

Three leading disaster experts give tips on how to be prepared when the lights go out

Nebo Big Larry 2 torch, £14.99; Duronic Apex wind-up radio, £17.99; Water-to-Go water bottle, £19.99

Nebo Big Larry 2 torch, £14.99; Duronic Apex wind-up radio, £17.99; Water-to-Go water bottle, £19.99

Professor Lucy Easthope, Britain’s leading disaster expert, is “terribly embarrassed” to say that her family does generator drills. She lives with her husband, two children, aged nine and twelve, and three labradors in Shrewsbury. Once a month they test their petrol and diesel back-up generator to make sure it will work if the lights go out.

In the UK “prepping has a bad rep, hooked to Armageddon religions. But I’d be doing my profession a disservice if I didn’t put this level of work in,” Easthope says.

She is no nutter bracing for a “black swan” or SHTF (shit hits the fan) event, as preppers call it. Easthope not only advised the prime minister’s office on the Covid pandemic, but has worked on disasters including 9/11, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the Grenfell fire — movingly recounted in her bestselling memoir, When the Dust Settles.

Professor Lucy Easthope, Britain’s leading disaster expert

Professor Lucy Easthope, Britain’s leading disaster expert

Last week Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, urged people to buy battery-powered radios and torches to boost their “personal resilience” in the event of power supplies collapsing. A new Julia Roberts film, Leave the World Behind, depicts how families might survive during such a crisis. So should you, as one worried Mumsnetter posted in response, “don [your] tin hat and start panic buying tinned food”?

“Britain can be quite complacent in terms of how much help is coming over the hill. It isn’t always,” Easthope says. The idea of preparedness went “more mainstream” in the pandemic, but the UK is still “considered really far behind” the precautions that America and Australia encourage citizens to take, she adds. “This kind of preparedness will genuinely save lives.”

What should you stock up on? We asked three British disaster professors, including Easthope, how they have prepared in their own homes.

Dr Sarita Robinson, alias “Dr Survival”, lectures on the psychology of survival at the University of Central Lancashire. She became fascinated with why some people cope in disasters and others don’t after hearing her mother’s stories of surviving hurricanes as a child in Mauritius. Her rule is that your preparation should “fit your life — it shouldn’t take over”. Robinson does what she calls “micro preps”. Not many people have the space or money to stockpile three months’ supplies, she says. “I wouldn’t build a nuclear bunker in the backyard. But would I have a go bag and some first aid training? Absolutely.”

A new film, Leave the World Behind, starring Julia Roberts, depicts how families might survive during a cyberattack

Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at University College London and co-founder of disastersavoided.com, keeps enough supplies to survive two weeks at home. “It is not about instilling fear … It’s simply about saying, ‘Let’s do what we can to help each other and support each other,’ recognising that governments cannot and should not do everything.”

It is harder to ask people to prepare amid the cost of living crisis, Easthope says. As Kelman puts it: “The real disaster is that so few people can afford to be prepared.”

• Don’t panic! How to be a practical prepper for a power cut• Could I survive a blackout? My day without power

The disaster experts’ essentials

1 Go bagEasthope, who tweets as @LucyGoBag, says your go bag should contain what you would take “if somebody said to you, ‘We need to get you out now, you’ve got 15 minutes to pack.’” Her bag mirrors a “weekend mini break bag, but with extra things in”. It has a phone charger, a battery pack, underwear, a wash bag, a spare pair of glasses, headache pills and a bottle of water.

Kelman’s advice is to keep at hand a money belt with cash and a passport, as bank cards may not work in a crisis.

Robinson’s bag is in her car, with an extra set of clothes, a foil survival blanket, a small torch and food for 24 hours. “It’s basically thinking, if I break down on some remote Scottish hillside and my phone is out of charge, would I have enough to get me through the night?” She adds: “Parents of young children have a go bag. It’s just called a nappy bag. Don’t overthink it.”

Anker Portable Power Station, £149

2 PowerBecause Kelman lives in a flat without a garden, he decided not to have a generator, which comes with a risk of fire or carbon monoxide poisoning. Nor does he have a power bank, which will eventually run out. In a long power cut “I’m assuming that I won’t have my phone or my laptop”.

To charge your phone up to four times, the consumer website Which? recommends the INIU Power Bank 22.5W Fast Charging 20,000mAh (£28.96, Amazon).

Robinson has a “tiny generator, the sort of thing you take camping”. Which? suggests the battery-powered Anker Portable Power Station, which costs £149 and can be charged with a solar charger. The manufacturer claims it can power a mini fridge for five hours.

Petrol generators start from £200 and diesel-powered ones from £400, Which? says. Easthope keeps hers in a store in the garden. “It has to be well ventilated,” she says. “It’s terribly, terribly embarrassing to admit we run monthly generator drills in House Easthope.”

If you fit solar panels and a home battery, ensure that the battery will still work in a power cut. Not all do.

A whole house back-up power system like EcoFlow can take your property (or campervan) off grid, but they start from £4,150.

3 CommunicationThe mobile phone network may fail in a blackout; so will landlines, if they have been switched to phone calls over broadband, as has happened in much of the UK. A wind-up radio, ideally with solar power as well, such as the Duronic Apex (£17.99, Amazon), is your best friend for emergency updates, Easthope says.

Bottled water should be a key part of any survival kit or go bag

ALAMY

4 WaterRobinson has several bottles that can purify any water (from £19.99. watertogo.eu). “It’s useful on holidays too, for cutting plastic waste when you can’t trust the water.” Kelman and Easthope both keep large bottles of water at home.

If the power cuts out, water supply often stops too as pumps cease. “Then immediately stop flushing your loos,” Easthope says. You can flush with a bucket of non-drinking water instead.

5 FoodExperts recommend having food for at least 72 hours. Include cereals, nuts and dried fruit, meals that do not need cooking and treats. When the pandemic loomed, Robinson was ready with the essentials but her husband noticed the “nice things” were missing. “He went to the shop for crisps and chocolate. Else we would have been totally miserable.” Stock food that you would eat, she adds — their tins of Fray Bentos pies never got eaten in lockdown.

Kelly Kettle, £49.50; Biolite CampStove 2, £160.95

6 HeatA small gas camping stove with spare canisters and matches is a useful back-up cooker, Robsinson says. Which? recommends the Coleman FyreStorm PCS (£55.93, Amazon). A Kelly Kettle can boil water in three minutes using only twigs and pine cones as fuel (from £49.50, kellykettle.com), while a Biolite CampStove 2 does the same while also converting the heat into electricity to charge your phone (£160.95, knivesandtools.co.uk). “A common question is: can you use a camping stove indoors? You can, but ensure there’s a good amount of ventilation,” Which? advises. Or use your gas barbecue outside.

7 Light“The world feels more terrifying when it’s dark,” says Easthope, who has solar lamps, rechargeable lamps and hurricane lanterns. Disaster experts “are not thrilled with candles” because of the fire risk, she says.

According to Which?, the Nebo Big Larry 2 torch (£14.99) and the Black Diamond Astro 300 head torch (£32) both last over eight hours. Remember spare batteries or buy a wind-up torch.

8 ToolsRobinson has a life axe, also called an escape hammer, in her car to cut seatbelts and break the window if she becomes trapped in an accident.

None of the professors have weapons. “Looting and rioting are what we call a disaster myth. We see very low levels of that in real disasters,” Easthope says. “You see high levels of hunkering down rather than rapid societal breakdown.”

Prepare a first aid kit and ensure you have an extra month of any prescription medicine you take.

GETTY

9 MedicinePrepare a month’s extra supply of prescription medication and a first-aid kit. More important do a first-aid course. “More and more we’re seeing a longer delay with help coming. That’s a worthwhile investment. It’s a lovely quirky Christmas present for a teenager,” says Easthope, who has put both her children through first-aid courses. Her 12-year-old has also done a survival course and her nine-year-old is training to be a swimming lifeguard.

10 Mindset“Know thy neighbour,” Kelman says. Survival is “all about knowing each other’s needs and supporting each other.”

One of the “most important things”, Easthope says, is to talk through your disaster plan as a household. What would you do in a flood or a house fire? How will you get back together if you are separated?

As a start, on each day of September the British campaign 30days30waysuk.org.uk offers a different way to better prepare for emergencies. The US government has a good website on preparing your children (ready.gov/kids).

Sharyn McInally-Johnston runs the shop and consultancy ALS Survival (air, land and sea survival) with her husband, Mark, a former survival equipment specialist in the Royal Navy. “As a couple we were always naturally prepared. When we had children we realised the level of preparedness we needed was much more complex,” she says.

The McInally-Johnstons regularly set family challenges to test-run events such as a power cut, mains water failure, no mobile signal or having to leave home in an emergency, “to see what barriers you will come across in order to find ways to overcome them”, she says. “Children will be more prepared, less fearful and able to help themselves in emergency situations too. It’s also a great way for parents to know what they are doing should a real emergency arise.”

Are you prepared for an unexpected disaster, or would you do so? What would you stock up on? Tell us below

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