Answers to southeastern Wisconsin cold weather power outage questions (2024)

I was one of about 30,000 We Energies customers without power Sunday. I am grateful that it was restored to my Wauwatosa home around 1 p.m., after going out nearly 40 hours earlier. The We Energies outage map that I had checked too many times to count had, had my estimated time of restoration as Monday, Jan. 15 at noon.

On Saturday night around 7:30, it was 52 degrees on the upstairs of my house (with a fireplace running downstairs) and 12 degrees outside. That’s three degrees cooler inside than it was two hours earlier, and the temperature was dropping outside just as quickly. And, that’s about when I found myself frantically searching for answers — Neighborhood Facebook group: Any guidance about what to do about water? Let faucets drip? Internet: How to use a generator (although I never thought of buying one before). Alexa (from the warmth of my sister’s Milwaukee house): At what temperature does it become too cold inside for house cats?

Feeling not completely satisfied with any of the answers I found (can I trust Alexa telling me that house cats might get sick if the temperature goes under 65 inside?), I think ... duh … WUWM. WUWM is great at answering these types of questions in a clear and transparent way.

I’m Michelle Maternowski, WUWM’s digital manager, and I know I am not alone asking these questions. There’s nearly 30,000 of us in southeastern Wisconsin without electricity, worried — not about the Packers, but about how to make it through a day that has a high of 7 (and wind chills as low as -34).

WUWM is working on answering questions about to do as the temperatures continue to dip. Here's what we have found out:

Questions about shelter

If it is too cold to be at my house, where can I go?

MPS' North Division High School has been designated as an emergency shelter during the current power outage and is now accessible to the public, according to a January 13, 2024 news release from the City of Milwaukee Health Department. The Waukesha Expo Center is also available and is currently being used as a warming shelter.

In addition, some libraries, community centers, government buildings and churches are now operating as warming centers during some daytime hours. You can search by zip code on 211 Wisconsin's website to find a location near you or call 211.

A list of shelters that operate on a continuous basis (not just during extreme cold and power outages) is available on the City of Milwaukee Health Department's website.

Sources: 211 Wisconsin, City of Milwaukee Health Department,American Red Cross of Wisconsin

Can my family stay together at a shelter?

Yes. Both North Division High School and the Waukesha Expo Center are able to provide shelter to families. Families are encouraged to come to a shelter especially if they are experiencing a power outage and are in need of a place to get warm.

Source: American Red Cross of Wisconsin

Do shelters/warming centers have the ability to provide space for neurodivergent people and people with special physical needs?

North Division High School and the Waukesha Expo center do not have special considerations for neurodivergent people and people with special needs. However, those with special needs are still encouraged to come and take shelter if needed.

Source: American Red Cross of Wisconsin

What emergency funding is available for hotels, generators, weather-proofing or other costs for residents who can’t afford these things?

Because a state of emergency has not been declared, there is no emergency funding available to residents at this time. It is uncertain if emergency funding will be available in the near future. Anyone in need of any non-emergency resources or services is encouraged to call 211.

Source: Milwaukee Health Department

With dangerously cold temperatures (and even colder wind chills), how can I stay safe when I have to go outside?

Pay attention to cold-weather health alerts and advisories from theNational Weather Service. Limit the time you spend outside, and wear the appropriate warm clothing to cover exposed skin including your fingers, nose and ears. Seek immediate medical treatment for frostbite, which can occur within minutes to unprotected skin. Watch for skin to appear white or grayish-yellow and to feel firm or waxy. Also seek immediate medical treatment for hypothermia, which can be life-threatening. It occurs when the body temperature drops too low, causing shivering, drowsiness, clumsiness and confusion. Check on family members and friends who may be at-risk for injuries or illness, especially the elderly and those with certain medical conditions. Be sure to limit the amount of time children and pets spend outdoors.

Source: National Weather Service, Milwaukee Health Department

Can I take pets to a shelter?

You can bring your pet to an emergency shelter; however, they must be kept in their crate at all times unless they need to use the bathroom.

Source: American Red Cross of Wisconsin

Any tips for pets during this extreme cold snap?

The ASPCA says, “If it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for your pet, so keep your animals inside.” Pets left outdoors can freeze, become disoriented, lost, stolen, injured or killed. Pets should not be left alone in a car during cold weather, because cars in the wintertime can act as refrigerators that hold in the cold and cause animals to freeze to death.

Pets need a little more food during winter months, since they burn extra energy trying to stay warm. And cats and dogs should have a warm place to sleep, off the floor (such as on a dog bed or cat bed) and away from drafts.

People who have short-haired dogs should consider getting them a coat or sweater with a high collar/turtleneck. The ASPCA has tips for coping with a pets’ dry, itchy skin in the wintertime. There are also suggestions for dealing with the ice balls that form in some dogs’ fur, and the salt and de-icing chemicals that may get on dogs’ feet during walks.

Source: ASPCA

How can I get my phone charged?

For people who are experiencing power outages and are unable to charge their phones in their homes, they can bring their chargers to an emergency shelter and charge their phones using one of their outlets.

Source: Milwaukee Health Department

Answers to southeastern Wisconsin cold weather power outage questions (2)

Michelle Maternowski



Questions about home safety & maintenance

Should I have my faucets dripping? At what indoor temperature should I do that? Should I ever turn off the water main? And, if so.. how I do I find the water main?

Milwaukee Water Works says there are steps you can take now to avoid frozen pipes and the damage they can cause. If someone is remaining in your home during the power outage, you can reduce the risk of freezing pipes by letting a stream of water (that’s about the diameter of a pencil) run at a steady flow in the sinks in the kitchen and bathroom.

If you need to leave your home because you have no heat, you can shut off the water service by closing the valve(s) nearest to the water meter. Water meters are most commonly located in the basem*nt where the service line enters the structure.

If you suspect frozen pipes or a frozen water meter, Milwaukee Water Works urges you to contact Meter Services at 414-286-8000. Milwaukee Water Works hasa number of tips on providing warmth to water pipes and preventing cold drafts near basem*nt water pipes.

Source: Milwaukee Water Works

I have a boiler — should I be worried?

Yes. This can be a big deal because boilers are filled with water, and if your home has not had heat for numerous days, those pipes could freeze and burst — especially any pipes in radiators on exterior-facing walls. And, if a pipe does burst, that means when power is restored, you would need to get your heating system repaired before you can start to heat your house and resume your normal life again.

You may want to consult with an expert to see if there is anything you can do to reduce potential damage to your system.

Since it is so cold, you may just need to go somewhere warm and connect with your insurance later if any damage does occur.

Radiators in two rooms of my house did freeze (and luckily, did not burst). I was directed to point space heaters at them to help them thaw.

Source: Brian Wendel of Air Solutions

What about perishable foods in the fridge or freezer? If I’ve kept the doors shut, how long does the fridge stay cool/cold enough for the food not to spoil?

Food in a fridge without power goes bad after four hours. Food in a freezer may stay fresh up to 48 hours if the freezer is full (up to 24 hours if the freezer is halfway full). "When in doubt, throw it out," says the American Red Cross.

FoodShare members: if the power outage caused food that you bought with FoodShare benefits to be destroyed, you can file a claim for replacement. TheWisconsin Department of Health Services has a form that must be submitted within 10 days of the loss, along with proof that the food was destroyed.

Sources: American Red Cross,Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Answers to southeastern Wisconsin cold weather power outage questions (3)

Michelle Maternowski



What should I do about downed power lines?

Numerous tree branches were downed in the snowstorm. We Energies urges residents to stay at least 25 feet away from power lines — and to assume that they are energized. The utility also reminds people to call We Energies or local law enforcement to report downed power lines. We Energies has this post aboutpower outage safety tips and this one about power outage restoration and causes.

Source: We Energies

What should I do if I have power but tree branches are touching my power line?

You can call We Energies at 800-242-9137 (or visit this page) and tell the customer service person about the branch pushing against the power line. We Energies will then send someone to inspect the line.

Source: We Energies

Working on this story makes me think about Saturday at dusk. As I was packing up my car with contents from my refrigerator and my kids pjs and toothbrushes, out of the corner of my eye I saw a neighbor’s house lit up with Christmas lights. In that moment, I felt so disconnected — like we were worlds away from each other.

But then offers of help started to pour in — my mom’s friend checking to see if her old generator worked so that I could use it; my uncle in Reno sharing plumbing tips; my sister opening up her house to my kids and I; WUWM coworkers helping to gather trusted, necessary information.

During stressful (and dangerous) situations, it is nice to get some help. If you have questions about this bitter cold power outage in southeastern Wisconsin — please submit below them and we will do our best to get your questions answered.

This story will be updated. Ann-Elise Henzl and Nadya Kelly are contributing to this story.


Answers to southeastern Wisconsin cold weather power outage questions (2024)
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