Avoid electrical safety hazards after a natural disaster
Natural disasters can leave plenty of damage in their wake, including downed power lines. Unfortunately, electrical safety hazards—many of them hidden—remain long after storms have passed. In some cases, more lives are lost after a storm than from the storm itself.
“When you’re dealing with storm cleanup or flood-damaged property, the prospect of an electrical accident is probably not top of mind,” says Safe Electricity’s Molly Hall. “But it’s the first thing you should think of before you go outside, step foot into a flooded area or enter a storm-damaged building.”
To help protect you from storm-related electrical hazards, the Electrical Safety Foundation International offers these tips.
When caught outside during a lightning storm, move to a low point. Lightning hits the tallest available object, so get down in a crouched position and stay away from trees. Tuck your head and cover your ears.
Don’t hold onto metal items. Stay away from metal sheds, clotheslines, poles and fences.
Avoid water and anything damp—like grass. Don’t stand close to other people.
If you encounter a lightning storm while driving, slow down and use extra caution. If possible, pull off the road into a safe area. Do not leave your vehicle; it is considered safe during a thunderstorm if it is fully enclosed with a metal top. Do not use electronic devices.
Being inside during a storm doesn’t mean you are safe. While it is storming outside, stay away from windows and doors. If possible, unplug electronic equipment before the storm arrives. Avoid contact with electrical equipment and cords, as well as water and plumbing, including sinks, baths and faucets.
If you need to use a phone, use corded telephones only for emergencies. You can use cordless or cellular phones.
If you see a downed power line, move at least 10 feet away from the line and anything touching it. Your body is a ready conductor of electricity. Shuffle away with small steps, keeping your feet together and on the ground at all times. Electricity wants to move from a high-voltage zone to a low-voltage zone—and could do that through your body.
If you see someone who is in direct or indirect contact with the downed line, do not touch them. Call 911.
Do not move a downed power line or anything in contact with the line by using another object. Even non-conductive materials like wood or cloth, if slightly wet, can conduct electricity and electrocute you.
If you encounter a downed powerline in the road, do not drive over it. If a power line comes down onto your car or you don’t see it until you have driven into it, stay in your car and tell others to stay away from your vehicle. If you must leave your car because it is on fire, jump out of the vehicle with both feet together, and avoid contact with the live car and the ground at the same time. Shuffle away from the car.
If a power line has come down in water, stay away. Any amount of water could become energized. Be careful not to touch water—or anything in contact with the water—near a downed power line.
Use extreme care when stepping into flooded areas. Submerged outlets or electrical cords can energize water, posing a lethal trap.
If your appliances got wet during a flood, do not use them until they have been examined by a qualified service repair dealer. Electrical equipment exposed to water can be extremely dangerous if re-energized without proper reconditioning or replacement. Water can damage motors.
That goes for circuit breakers, fuses, ground fault circuit interrupters, receptacles, plugs and switches, which can malfunction when water and silt get inside. Discard if they have been submerged.
Do not connect generators directly to household wiring unless an appropriate transfer switch has been installed by a licensed, qualified electrician. Without it, power provided by the generator can “backfeed” along the power lines, creating an electrocution hazard.
Never operate a generator inside your home or in any other area enclosed, or even partially enclosed. Generators produce carbon monoxide, which can enter your home. Place the generator on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure. Make sure your generator is grounded in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Do not operate the generator in wet conditions or where there is standing water.
Opening windows or doors or using fans does not provide adequate ventilation to prevent build-up of carbon monoxide. Generators must be located a safe distance away from your home’s windows, doors and vents. Even 15 feet from the home is too close to safely operate a generator. Keep your generator a safe distance away from your neighbor’s homes as well.
The capacity of generators varies. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Overloading or refueling the generator while it is running is a fire hazard. Unplug all appliances before shutting down the generator. Turn the generator off and let it cool before refueling.
Stay Safe After a Storm
Safe Electricity offers these precautions following storms:
If you are driving and come upon a downed power line, stay in your vehicle, warn others to stay away, and contact emergency personnel or your electric utility. Never drive over a downed line. It could pull down poles.
Be alert at intersections where traffic lights may be out. Stop at all railroad crossings and treat road intersections with traffic signals as four-way stops before proceeding.
Before re-entering storm-damaged buildings or rooms, be sure all electric and gas services are turned off. Never stand in water to turn off power at the breaker box. If you cannot reach your breaker box safely, call your electric utility to shut off power.
Never step into a flooded basement or other area if water is covering electrical outlets, appliances or cords. Be alert to any electrical equipment that could be energized and in contact with water. Never touch electrical appliances, cords or wires while wet or standing in water.
Keep electric tools and equipment at least 10 feet away from wet surfaces. Do not use electric tools if it is raining or wet.
Appliances that have been drenched or submerged should be thoroughly cleaned and reconditioned before they are put back into service. It may be necessary to replace them. Do not use any water-damaged appliance until a professional has checked it out.
If the power is out for a prolonged period following a storm or disaster, know important safety rules, such as never using a charcoal or gas grill to cook inside.
If using a portable generator, be sure a transfer safety switch has been installed, or connect appliances directly to the generator. This prevents electricity from traveling back through to power lines—what is known as “backfeed.” Backfeed creates danger for anyone near lines