Food for Hurricanes

Living in Florida means dealing with hurricanes. Anyone who’s ever been through one knows that planning for hurricane food can be a major stress point. Stocking up at the last minute doesn’t work, so it’s best to plan ahead.

Empty vegetable bins during hurricane food preparation

Preparing Before the Storm

Storm clouds over Florida during Hurricane

This USDA Food Safety article has great advice. Some tips are common sense, but there are some great points I haven’t considered before.

For example, our house sits high above ground-level so I haven’t given much thought to flood-water contamination issues.

What would I do if our food stores were flooded? It’s not a huge risk for us, but for almost all of Florida, flooding and floodwater contamination are the biggest dangers during hurricanes.

Making Block Ice

Both dry ice and block ice are super useful for emergency prep. Unfortunately both are almost impossible to find, especially before a hurricane hits. That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead. Even without a hurricane I haven’t been able to find any source for block ice near me.

The USDA guide recommends freezing water and making block ice before losing power.

This is great advice because making block ice is easy, and can save a lot of money. It certainly makes more sense than buying ice from a store. During pre-hurricane mania it might not even be possible to find ice at all, so making your own is a no-brainer.

Another benefit to making block ice yourself is that it’s easier to store. It’s hard to find freezer space for bagged ice because it comes in such bulky, inconvenient bags. By making your own block ice in small containers, you can use molds to exactly fit your freezer space.

The best molds for making block ice

This may be overkill, but I’ve done experiments to find the best molds for making block ice. I’ve found that the best molds are strong, clean tupperware containers. It’s important that the plastic material is thick enough to resist cracking, and flexible so it can expand with the ice. The technique for making block ice is even more important than the mold, though.

Safe Food Temperatures

Refrigerators must be 40F or lower, and freezers should be 0F or colder. Thermometers can remove guess work and uncertainty to make sure food is safe to eat.

This was a great reminder for me. I’ve been meaning to buy thermometers for our refrigerator and freezer- this is a great reminder to make it a priority.

Having confidence in food temperatures is so important because

1.) You don’t want to waste precious food that might be in scarce supply after a storm

2.) You definitely don’t want to cause food-born-illness during or after a hurricane emergency. Hygiene and safety are already hard after a storm, I can’t imagine the horror of having food poisoning in sweltering, sweaty conditions without running water or electricity.

This guide also reminded me of a tip I saw that freezer and refrigerator settings should be put on their coldest setting before a storm hits.

Along those same lines, the USDA guide recommends freezing refrigerated items so they stay at a safe temperature for longer. These things, and more, can be frozen:

  • Milk
  • Leftovers
  • Fresh meat
  • Poultry

Tips for arranging and packing a cooler and freezer

  • Freeze water in small containers that fit in your freezer and will conform around food shapes and refrigerator spaces.
  • Block ice stays frozen for much longer than small ice cubes.
  • Group cold foods together in the refrigerator and freezer.

Both of these tactics work great because they minimize dead-air space and help increase cooling efficiency. This will help reduce ice-melt rates and also help food temperatures stay in the safe range for longer.

The guide doesn’t mention this, but if you take the time to clean and sanitize your containers first you’ll have an additional benefit of clean water after the ice melts.

Some of these tips are basic and overlap with knowledge we have from how to pack a cooler for camping. Although these tips weren’t super helpful for me, I’m glad the USDA included them because most people have probably never learned how to pack a cooler with dry ice.

The guide recommends knowing where to buy dry ice and block ice. This is a great tip, although both of these items would probably sell out quickly before a storm hits.

Dry ice is a great tool, and can be super helpful during a storm, but it has some quirks. It has many safety considerations, and must be used with great care to avoid property damage, injury or even death.

Another problem with dry ice, especially, is that there’s almost no way to buy it in advance of when you need it, since dry ice melts at -109F*. So if dry ice is part of your storm preparation plan, in the best case scenario you’ll be trying to buy it at the last minute, and if you even find some, it will start melting* almost immediately.

Actually, dry ice does not melt, it sublimates– which means that it changes directly from a solid to a gas.

The guide recommends having coolers on hand to use in case power goes out for more than four hours. This is because 4 hours is a rough estimate of how long a refrigerator will keep food in a safe-temperature range. This time range is affected by many variables, like how full the fridge is (full is better!), how often the door is opened (less is better!)

If you do end up moving refrigerated food to a cooler be sure to:

  • Move the food quickly
  • Pre-cool the cooler
  • Keep the cooler closed as much as possible
  • Consider separating foods into separate containers
  • Make sure the cooler is clean
  • Be careful to avoid contamination from meat in the melt-water
  • Avoid dead-air space
  • Try to make sure ice surrounds food so the ice can cool effectively

Non-Perishable Foods

Florida's empty supermarket shelves during hurricane preparation

The guide recommends having several days worth of food that doesn’t need cooking or cooling. This is why canned goods like spam and canned tuna are stripped off shelves before a storm.

  • Mixed nuts
  • Canned meat
  • Crackers, meat
  • Peanut butter

The best food for hurricanes: Recipes that don’t require refrigeration

Steps to follow if the power goes out

Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if the door is kept closed. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).

Keep frozen meat and poultry separated from other food as much as possible, and take steps to avoid contamination. As frozen meats thaw they may leak, contaminate other food and make it unsafe to eat.

The guide recommends using dry ice or block ice to keep a refrigerator as cold as possible during long power outages.

The USDA guide advises that “Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days.”

“Check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.”

This is why a reliable thermometer is so vital.

“Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture or feels warm to the touch.Never taste a food to decide if it’s safe.When in doubt, throw it out.”

I’d never heard this tip before, but the USDA guide recommends using ice crystals to determine whether food is safe to refreeze after thawing. The guide says that if food has ice crystals it’s safe to refreeze, or if it remained below 40 degrees F.

“Check frozen food for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below.”

Food safety after a flood

“Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water—this would include raw fruits and vegetables, cartons of milk or eggs.”

I’d never given this much thought, but what if your house were to flood and all of your food and hurricane supplies were contaminated with flood water?

One of the reasons why flooding is so dangerous is because of contamination. Sewage, toxic chemicals, biological hazards and all sorts of dangerous materials mix together to make flood water a toxic sludge.

The guide warns that nobody should eat food that has been in contact with flood water, especially things like fruits, vegetables and any food container that’s not totally waterproof.

“Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Food containers that are not waterproof include those packaged in plastic wrap or cardboard, or those with screw‐caps, snap lids, pull tops and crimped caps. Flood waters can enter into any of these containers and contaminate the food inside. Also, discard cardboard juice/milk/baby formula boxes and home-canned foods if they have come in contact with flood water, because they cannot be effectively cleaned and sanitized.

Honestly, while thinking about this, even if something was totally waterproof and sealed, I’d be scared to use it. Even touching a contaminated container while cooking might be dangerous. Especially with limited supplies of fresh water, trying to decontaminate sealed containers of food would be a tough job.

Inspect canned foods and discard any food in damaged cans. Can damage is shown by swelling, leakage, punctures, holes, fractures, extensive deep rusting or crushing/denting severe enough to prevent normal stacking or opening with a manual, wheel‐type can opener. “

It never occurred to me that canned goods might be contaminated by floodwater, it was good to think about the possibility. I can easily imagine cabinetry, heavy furniture or debris falling on a stockpile of canned goods and causing damage that could introduce flood water.

Cooking with cans that have been exposed to flood water could be dangerous because hands might introduce contaminates. The blades from can openers might make contact with the outside of a can and cause contamination.

This USDA Guide has great information about safe food practices for hurricanes.