Hurricane Season: When the Power Goes Out

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This is the second installment in a series on severe weather by Extension Master Food Volunteer in Alamance County, Nancy Oliver.

person looking out a window in a dark room

What do you do when the power goes out during a severe weather event?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends:

  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
  • A refrigerator can keep food cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened. If the power will be out for longer than 4 hours, use coolers to keep refrigerated food cold.
  • A full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed.

But what if your refrigerator freezer is packed to half capacity and your ice cream is located near the door (you think it is, anyway)? Is it worth the risk to open the freezer door to grab that gallon of cookies-and-cream ice cream that’s really closer to the back?

“Try to resist the urge to eat that ice cream,” says Eleanor Frederick, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent for Alamance County. “A fully packed freezer will stay frozen for up to 48 hours if the door stays shut. For a freezer that is half full, things will stay frozen for about 24 hours. The key is keeping the door shut to maintain those cold temperatures!”

Maintaining and cooking food at safe temperatures

The Food Safety scientists from NC State Extension say that the value of the thermometer cannot be understated. When you are beginning your plan, start by looking at your thermometers.

One thermometer will be needed to read the temperature in the non-freezer part of your refrigerator. The second thermometer is for your refrigerator’s freezer. (If you have a deep freeze, you’ll need one for that, too.) The third thermometer is the tip-sensitive type. You’ll need this to make sure you are cooking food (on your grill, for example) to safe standards.

Go ahead and place the thermometers now – before the power goes out – and forget about them.


Make sure you have enough coolers. Buy ice and dry ice. A full freezer will keep everything cold longer. Keep that door on your refrigerator freezer or the lid on the cooler closed. Only open your coolers to get the food that you will use at one time. After all, you will not have the properly cooled space to save any leftovers.


Purchase and store water by the case. Use bottled water for everything from brushing your teeth to cooking your food.


Before the storm strikes, take inventory of what you already have in the refrigerator. Buy foods that do not require refrigeration or that may be eaten cold … or heated on an outdoor grill.

Cook and eat from your original containers when you can. Powdered or canned milk can be substituted for fresh milk. Tomatoes, leafy greens, and cut melons should be eaten with 4 hours.

Today, grocery stores offer many options for already-cooked foods that you can eat straight from the pouch. Stock up on these.

Here’s a list of examples to stock:

  • Shelf-stable canned/pouched/boxed foods
  • Soups/stews/chilis
  • Pasta
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fruit and vegetable juices
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Chicken
  • Pork and beans

Here’s a list of 10 dry-food items to keep on hand:

  • Bread
  • Crackers
  • Granola bars
  • Breakfast bars and pastries
  • Cold cereal
  • Nut butters
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Jerky and dried meat sticks
  • Powdered milk
  • Canned evaporated milk

Here are a few examples of vegetables to consider:

  • Carrots
  • Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Other firm, fresh fruit

Cooking while the power is out

When the power is out, you will need to cook your food safely and quickly. Any food — such as a cooked vegetable, sliced melons, raw/cooked meats, leafy greens, and tomatoes — will pose a risk if it goes above 41 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 4 hours.

Never plan to use an outdoor grill or burners inside your home, even in a fireplace. The fumes from those grills and camping stoves can be deadly. Also, never use lighter fluid in a fireplace; flames can cause damage to the home.

Using the tip-sensitive thermometer will help you keep these foods healthy to eat. When you are cooking, heat foods to the following internal temperatures for safety:

  • Eggs, whole meats, fish: 145°F;
  • Ground meats, ground fish: 155°F;
  • Whole and ground poultry: 165°F.

Check back in a few days for the next installment in our severe weather series: what happens after the power comes back on.