Fridge Out of Power? How to Handle Your Food Safely

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As of this writing, some 5.5 million people in the eastern U.S. are still without power in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

The storm was most devastating not on the shoreline, but inland, particularly in Vermont and upstate New York where flood waters swept away entire houses and left unknown numbers of residents displaced. Overall, Irene wrought less structural damage than anticipated, but it is thought to have had one of the largest impacts on infrastructure of any storm on record.

For the millions of Americans now getting by without electricity or with flood water still dampening their homes, it’s important to take precautions to avoid bacteria-related illness. To that end, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a useful public-safety announcement to help you keep your kitchen clean. (Hopefully, you have access to computer in another location, or know someone who does.)

The USDA notes that refrigerators can keep food at a safe temperature for about four hours without being opened, while freezers can maintain the right temperature for 48 hours if they are full, or for 24 hours at half capacity.

Here are a few more suggestions from the USDA on how to handle food safely in the wake of an electrical outage or flooded home:

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature
  • Get rid of perishable food, such as meat, dairy, eggs, leftovers and deli items after four hours without electricity
  • Buy dry or block ice to keep your fridge and freezer cold
  • Food can be refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or if its temperature is 40 degrees or lower; use a food thermometer to check
  • Keep an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator (which should be at 40 degrees or lower) and freezer (0 degrees or lower)
  • Discard anything that may have come into contact with flood water, which can contain pathogens
  • Before eating, wash all utensils, pots, pans and dishes in hot, soapy water and sanitize them by boiling in clean water or by soaking them for at least 15 minutes in a solution of one tablespoon of liquid chlorine per gallon of drinking water
  • Drink bottled water, which hasn’t come into contact with flood water, whenever possible. If tap is all that’s available, be sure to boil water before drinking.

You can read the USDA’s entire public service announcement here. For more detail on what’s safe in your kitchen and what’s not — including whether you should keep or throw out canned goods affected by flood waters — check out Food Safety Inspection Service’s comprehensive emergency preparedness fact sheet.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter @TIME.