San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

DIY lights out: getting creative in emergency situations

My first year in Costa Rica, there was a week so windy I could have sworn I was living in “The Wizard of Oz.” Traffic signs and roof tiles flew off their posts and torpedoed into cars (and sometimes unfortunate pedestrians). Both the power and water were out in Liberia for three to four days; it was so dangerous that school was cancelled, work was postponed and you couldn’t even leave the house for fear of getting smacked in the face with flying objects.  

Fortunately, I lived right next door to my best friend at the time, and between the two of us, we were able to scrounge together enough supplies to get by. It wasn’t easy though, particularly with no water. Try going without a shower, fan or air conditioning in the Guanacaste heat for a few days and see how much you start to miss precious agua (even more than electricity!).

Perhaps the best preventative action you can take against natural disasters is to prepare an emergency kit (see below for suggestions). I know it’s a pain and it will cost hard-earned money to get everything together, so just do your best – but you probably already have a lot of these items at home that just need to be consolidated.

Lastly, if you think bad weather might be coming – don’t forget to stock up on lots of water! You’ll want it not only to drink, but also to bathe, brush your teeth and boil for cooking on a gas stove.

Emergency kit suggestions:

A gallon of water per person in the household (at least!). Don’t forget to consider pets.

A flashlight or emergency lantern with extra batteries.

Some canned food or food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated (canned tuna, veggies, nuts, etc.).

Portable radio, preferably a crank-powered one.

Cash money

Copies of your passport and other important documents.

Crowbar in case a natural disaster traps someone under or behind something big.

External battery pack for cellphones, tablets and other electronic devices (I’ve had good luck with New Trent products)

Zip-ties, matches and/or lighters are always handy to have around.

Multitool or other Inspector Gadget-like device with lots of basic tools in one unit.

First Aid kit with band-aids, a tourniquet, ace bandages, gauze, small scissors and/or tweezers, alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, medical tape, pills (prescription meds, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, decongestants, anti-diarrheal, Benadryl, antibiotic ointment, analgesic cream, ointment for bug bite relief, rubber gloves.

If you’re not going to follow the above advice, read on. Here are some alternative tips for creating a light source during an emergency situation, or when the power’s out for a while for no apparent reason:

Option #1: Download a flashlight app for your smartphone

You can find them in the App store for iPhone users, or the Google Play store for Android users. This will only work if your phone has a built in camera with flash. Unfortunately, the light will only last as long as your cellphone battery, which could be a few hours at best. On to option #2.

Option #2: Milk jug headlamp

You can wrap a headlamp over an empty plastic milk or juice jug in a pinch. The jug will diffuse the light. This is good for readers that are too cheap or too lazy to go out and buy a flashlight already. If you don’t have a headlamp or a milk jug, on to option #3 

Option #3: Make a candle out of a stick of butter and a sheet of toilet paper

No, I’m not kidding! This is really possible.

DIY breakdown

Candles made of butter. Who knew? 

Genna Marie Robustelli

What you’ll need: butter, knife, square of toilet paper, plate* or glass, nail or something else thin and pointy.

Step 1: Cut off a section of butter. These things burn for about 45 minutes per tablespoon, so the longer the butter is the longer it will burn.

Step 2: Make the wick out of toilet paper by folding the paper into a triangle then twisting it tight (see diagram). Fold a small “L” at one end.

Step 3: Stick the nail into the butter to make a hole, then press the “L” part of the wick into the hole.

Step 4: Cut the wick so it’s a nub about a centimeter or two long. Then spread butter all over it.

Step 5: Put your candle on a plate and light it up!

making the wick

Toilet paper: not just for wiping. 

Genna Marie Robustelli

*Note, although the wine glass looks prettier, the butter will stay cooler and burn much longer on a plate.  

Option #4: Star light, star bright

If you don’t have a flashlight, a smartphone, butter or toilet paper, you’re pretty much out of luck – so you might as well go outside and look at the stars! In absence of all the normal light pollution, you should have a much better view of the night sky. Stargazing can be a silver lining to a power outage – weather permitting, of course (meaning don’t go out in the middle of a hurricane).

*BONUS TIP* If you don’t have any significant others, friends or pets, click here to learn how to make an emergency stuffed animal out of two paper bags and a roll of duct tape that is sure to keep you company during a power outage. 

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