The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After hurricanes, generators pose a lethal threat. Here’s how to use them safely.

Officials are urging people without electricity after Ian to exercise caution while operating generators

Danica Cherico and Shawn Gehlert use a generator to power a lamp as they sit outside their apartment after it was damaged by Hurricane Michael in October 2018 in Panama City, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

More than 2 million people have been left without electricity in Florida after Ian, tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane on record to strike the United States, swept through the state. Many people will turn to generators to fill the void, but if used incorrectly they can be deadly.

In some recent hurricanes, post-storm fatalities — primarily resulting from carbon monoxide poisoning from the improper use of generators — have been comparable to deaths from the storm itself, including Hurricane Laura, which struck Louisiana in 2020.

“Once the storm goes, once there’s apparent calm, there are still plenty of hazards out there,” warned Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

“After #HurricaneIan passes, be careful going outside. Make sure to avoid downed power lines, avoid standing water, stay clear of trees, do not drive in standing water and keep generators 20 feet outside of your home,” DeSantis tweeted late Wednesday.

Ian has brought ‘historic’ damage to Florida, DeSantis says; 2.6M lose power in the state

More than 42,000 utility workers are staged to repair Florida’s power grid, DeSantis said, but outages may be prolonged, and many Floridians will be firing up generators.

Generators can produce potentially lethal amounts of carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas that can kill people in minutes without warning.

A common mistake is to use a generator indoors. Carbon monoxide can easily be trapped and cause unconsciousness and “flu-like” symptoms in minutes when used indoors.

“As people are focused upon rebuilding their lives, they’re not necessarily focused on the dangers of something like a generator helping them out by turning power back on,” Alexander Hoehn-Saric, chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), said in an interview.

Generators were blamed for more than a dozen deaths in Florida after Hurricane Irma in 2017, and they could again present grave danger following Ian, DeSantis said.

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one of the most common circumstances-of-death categories from Irma was power outages. Wind speeds of 130 mph downed power lines, leaving 6.7 million customers without power. Irma resulted in 27 power outage-related deaths, including 16 who died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The dangers of portable generators

According to the CPSC, which republished generator safety guidelines ahead of Hurricane Ian, one portable generator can produce the same amount of carbon monoxide as hundreds of cars.

Experts from the CPSC estimate that 85 portable generator users die of carbon monoxide poisoning each year in the United States.

The signs of carbon monoxide poisoning can be subtle. Symptoms include dull headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, weakness and shortness of breath.

Health officials from the CDC urge consumers never to use generators inside their homes or in nearby garages even if the windows are left open. Open doors or windows cannot supply enough air flow to prevent lethal levels of carbon monoxide from building up.

The commission also recommended that portable generators be used at least 20 feet from any homes, open windows or garages. The exhaust must be pointed away from homes.

“People don’t use generators all too often. They use them after a storm when they’re traumatized already and so they are looking to get power back on,” Hoehn-Saric said. “They may not realize that you should never use a generator inside of your house or in a garage.”

The CPSC also advised:

  • Ensure generators are properly maintained and that users carefully read the instructions.
  • Look for generators that shut off automatically when carbon monoxide levels are high.
  • Install battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors in sleeping areas.