Be Prepared for Winter Storms
My favorite season of the year is winter! Snow, Christmas music, holidays, family and friends, hot cocoa and the food are a few of my favorite things. Unfortunately I have spent most of my life in areas of the United States where there is a lot of snow during the winter, much to my dismay. Snow was more likely to come closer to spring than Christmas so you were just cold instead of jolly. But that doesn’t keep me from hoping and praying every year for a snow storm. I guess we never really grow up. Call me crazy – but if I could pick a disaster to be in, it would be snowed in during a winter storm. Luckily I’ve experienced some minor snow-ins during those lucky freak snow storms (one strangely happening on May Day). I’ve learned a few things about being prepared winter storms and every year I’ll continue to make preparations in hopes of being snowed in again.
Preparing Before a Winter Storm
Obviously a snow storm isn’t any fun if you aren’t prepared from the cold, power outages, and halting of transportation. So what can you do before the storms hit to make your snow storm experience a blast instead of a cold bummer?
First of all be sure you have a communications and emergency plan in place. Be sure that it includes plans for winter storms (more on that in a bit) and how to contact each other if the power goes out. If you only have cordless phones in your house, be sure to get a cheap swirly corded version to have on hand. Even if the power is out, these phones will continue to work while their more portable companions will go silent. If you only have cell phones, remember the storm may block signals, and texting may be your only means of communication, since it takes the least amout of signal to work. If your cell phone doesn’t appear to be working, borrow a neighbor’s land line to follow your communications plan, and include their number (or give it to those emergency contacts as soon as you call them, so they can reach you). If you have pets, do some research now to locate pet friendly shelters.
Next remember to pay attention to the weather. As in any disaster – being forewarned makes a significant difference. This should be something that is a regular daily habit outside of just the winter season and road trips. Not sure what all these different warnings mean? Allow me to translate (thanks http://www.ready.gov/winter-weather):
Freezing Rain – Rain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees and power lines.
Sleet – Rain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet also causes moisture on roads to freeze and become slippery.
Winter Weather Advisory – Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. When caution is used, these situations should not be life threatening.
Winter Storm Watch – A winter storm is possible in your area. Tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for more information.
Winter Storm Warning – A winter storm is occurring or will soon occur in your area.
Blizzard Warning – Sustained winds or frequent gusts to 35 miles per hour or greater and considerable amounts of falling or blowing snow (reducing visibility to less than a quarter mile) are expected to prevail for a period of three hours or longer.
Frost/Freeze Warning – Below freezing temperatures are expected.
Wind chill (or wind chill factor) is the perceived temperature on exposed skin. The wind chill temperature is never higher than the air temperature, and decreases in ratio with increased wind speed and decreases in temperature. This is an important factor in frostbite.
Hopefully your weather man is entertaining, we had one in South Dakota who would make up terms to illustrate forecasted temperature and wind chill combinations. My favorite – and may I add most accurate – was “frigidiculous.” If the forecast gives the warning, don’t just rely on the percentage to determine whether you’ll prep or not. Storms change directions and intensity and meteorology is not an exact science. Bring in your pets, and watch their behavior, they are great indicators that something is coming.
What is your heat source? If it’s electric you should have a plan for when the power goes out. I learned during on winter storm that the cold dampens the spirit of the season quicker than the Grinch. If you have children or elderly in your home this is even more important as they will suffer from the cold faster than adults. Extra blankets help, but huddling under every blanket in your house for the entire night makes for an exhausting and stressful night. I recommend adding safe, warm house to your emergency plans. If you have a good friend that lives CLOSE by with a wood stove or fireplace ask if they would be OK with your family evacuating to their house. If you have a wood stove or fireplace then its important to keep your wood supply (or pellets) in strong supply and well sheltered and dry. Never assume your half full wood pile will last until you have time to get to it. Make it a priority every fall, along with sweeping your chimney and keeping it in good health and repair. Don’t forget to stock up on matches! If you have a gas fireplace, check to see if you can start it without electricity. To be honest having natural gas for my heater and stove was such a comfort in South Dakota, because it meant we’d always have at least heat and a cooking source no matter the weather. I miss that!
Winterize Your Home against Winter Storms
Winterization is another important preparation, not just for your home but any other structures that could shelter your family or animals. Not only does it help your budget, but it means you’re that much safer and warmer when a storm comes in and your power goes out. Insulation, caulking, weather striping help keep you warm and cozy while the storm rages (rain or snow). Consider requesting or conducting a energy audit to find areas where you can improve your weatherization, and try to make what upgrades are possible. Its expensive, but it defiantly pays for itself. Not only is it a great preparation for winter storms, but for extreme summer heat as well. Some other simple winterization to-do’s include clearing your gutters, checking and fixing your roof and heaters. Hopefully your house already has a charged fire extinguisher and every one knows where it’s at and how to use it (fire safety will be covered in another post). Be sure that your fire alarms are working (and that you have one in every room), but also add and test carbon monoxide alarms as well. Another hazard of winter snow is falling tree branches. Be sure to check the health of your trees and remove any branches that could pose a hazard for your home.
Frozen pipes are the biggest surprise of winter storms. They also cause some of the biggest damage. For starters, check your insurance policy to see if they cover damage from frozen and broken pipe. Next insulate your pipes. There are many different methods from newspaper to special insulation similar to a pool noodle that can make this task simple and inexpensive. If you’re in a manufactured home check your pipes each season and be sure they are properly insulated. Above ground pipes are more likely to freeze. Also turn off all water sources outside your homes and insulate them. If you’re still worried about freezing pipes allow your faucets to drip a little during colder weather since moving water doesn’t freeze as quickly as stagnant water. During the holiday travel season be sure that you leave the heat on to at least 55* while you’re gone to prevent freezing in case there’s a storm while you’re gone. And just like earthquakes know where all your water shut off valves are located inside and outside, just in case there is a burst pipe.
Winter Storm Travel
Traveling during a winter storm can be hazardous. Particularly if you’re caught in your car, whether from traveling after the storm and getting stuck, or if your in your car when the storm hits. Hopefully you already have your car prepared for an emergency (start here if you don’t). Make sure that you always have a shovel, windshield scraper, and small broom in your car, along with basic survival and car trouble supplies. You may want to include rock salt, or sand in case you’re stuck in the snow (your car mats can be helpful as well). Lastly keep an extra set of gloves, socks, hats and blankets in your car, along with a red bandanna (a flag to tie to your antenna if you’re stranded) in your car.
Keep your car in good running condition. Your brake fluid, heater, and antifreeze levels are especially important for winter weather (check here for an in depth winterization list for your vehicle). Brakes can warp during the winter due to the heating and cooling from braking and driving in freezing temperatures. This causes the car to shake while braking and thus increasing the risk of losing control, especially on ice. Always keeping your fuel level over ¼ to ½ full is important as well. I almost forgot SNOW TIRES or CHAINS! If snow tires (studded or otherwise) are excessive for your area, than keep chains in your car that are specifically approved for your make and model. Practice putting them on and taking them off. No only do they help with snow but also in ice. If you have the opportunity to use them, get the practice, so you can get the feel for driving with them because the clunking and feeling of the car takes some getting used to.
If you have been keeping tabs on the weather reports then stock up your fridge in case you get stuck at home. This is extremely important if you live a ways out of town. Not only does it mean your family is well stocked with food stuffs, but it also means that when your power goes out, your fridge will stay colder longer. A full freezer and fridge will hold its temperature longer than an empty one (it also saves electricity if you’re curious). The good thing about cold weather through, is you have a natural fridge or freezer outside, so don’t be afraid to use it. Just keep an eye on it for when temperatures go up, snow melts, and animals visit. Be sure you have a good supply of ready to heat non-perishable food items. This is also where a manual can opener would be a really handy item (hint, hint). Don’t forget medication, especially prescriptions. If you have infants and small children -diapers, and formula are going to be just as vital, so stay stocked up.
Be sure that your house isn’t just stocked with food, and fuel, but with the right tools and equipment as well. Some of the tools you’ll need throughout the winter months, but most importantly after a big storm are, a snow shovel, salt or sand for traction on walkways, and sleds (snow drifts are instant sled hills, you can’t lose that opportunity folks!).
If you live outside of town or are in a more difficult location to reach than you need to be prepared for a longer snow in period. Plows and trucks do major roads first and move out from there based on popular travel routes, so you’re going to be lower on the list. This not only affects your ability to come and go but also that of emergency personnel and the electric company. This means you need to be well stocked in food and fuel because you are going to be there in the dark longer then those in town. Another thing you make want to consider (depending on how rural you are) is an alternate means of transportation like snow mobiles, snow shoes, etc. If you live in an area where snow storms are rare and the biggest cause for shut down is the fact that no one knows what to do – with snow, or in snow, or how to drive in snow- then find someone who is comfortable in this kind of weather, have them help you. During our last snowed in adventure, my husband was the requested good will deliverer for food and taxi and last minute Christmas shopping, since we had just moved from South Dakota and he was comfortable driving.
Lastly always keep supplies on hand for a snowman, sledding and snow forts for after the storm has passed. Don’t forget to keep plenty of old fashioned entertainment in the house. Books, games, coloring activities, and toys can make time fly instead of crawl. If you have kids consider keeping a secret emergency entertainment kit around for when their usual toys and activities lose their appeal and they turn on each other.
During a Winter Storm
The snows have arrived, the world looks like a Christmas card, everything is prepared and you are now house bound by the massive snow drift against your house or the car frozen to the ground by an ice storm. Now what?
- Conserve fuel and food. Try and move everyone into a smaller location so you’re not heating the entire house. Move everyone into the living room and shut up the other rooms. Having everyone in one location means you can also use the natural body heat to keep everyone warm instead of relying on a roaring fire.
- This includes cooking fuel as well.
- WARNING – never use a camp stove or propane heater indoors without proper ventilation! Carbon Monoxide is the Silent Killer!
- Bring out the blankets, some good reads, hot cocoa and the games. There’s no reason a disaster can’t become a family bonding adventure.
- Stay dry (easily done if you stay inside). Wet clothes decrease in insulation value and increases risk of frostbite and hypothermia.
- While the storm is really raging try and stay indoors. The only time I would recommend going out in the raging weather is if you absolutely have to seek warmer shelter (hopefully you made plans ahead of time and have a CLOSE evacuation point) or to check the snow piled up on your roof. Too much snow on the roof can cause the structure to collapse so try and keep an eye on it especially if you have a flatter roof. Only go up to shovel when the storm has ceased or if absolutely necessary. If this is the case have a spotter outside and use safe climbing procedures. Just because there are drifts to the eaves, doesn’t mean you won’t fall and get injured.
- Be sure to avoid overexertion while working outdoors, during and after a storm, heart attacks are the leading killer from snow storms (who knew?)
- If you have to go out dress for it – several layers of loss and light Dress for the weatherclothing is better than one layer of heavy clothing. Top this off with a wind and water proof winter coat and all the usual accessories in abundance. Take care to keep fingers, toes, ears and nose well covered (but don’t smother yourself), and cover your mouth with a scarf to prevent burning your lungs. Having a strong mint candy or menthol cough drop will also help keep your nostrils from freezing, a strange trick I learned in college when you could feel instant icicles in your nose once you stepped foot outside.
- Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia
- Frostbite symptoms – loss of feeling, white or pale extremities especially nose, ears, fingers, and toe
- Seek medical attention, run is under cool water (warm or hot could burn the skin more) and keep the victim warm and effected area movin
- Hypothermia symptoms – uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and exhaustion
- Move to warmer location, remove any damp clothing and wrap the body in a blanket (body heat from another person helps), warm the center of the body first not the extremities, have the victim drink warm beverages (non-caffeinated, non alcoholic), and seek medical attention.
- Frostbite symptoms – loss of feeling, white or pale extremities especially nose, ears, fingers, and toe
- If you have pipes that freeze then remove any insulation you put on them and pour warm water over them while running hot water from all the taps. Start where they are the most likely to have frozen. Be ready to turn of the water once you get them thawed
- Drive only when absolutely necessary
- Keep your cell phone with you
- Don’t drive by alone
- Keep others informed of when you’re leaving, your route, and when you anticipate arriving.
- Stay on the main roads – they get plowed first, and will be where rescuers will start looking for stranded vehicles.
Stranded In Your Car During a Winter Storm
If you’re in your car when the blizzard hits remain calm and follow my lead
- Pull over to the side of the road and turn on those hazard lights
- Tie a red bandanna or bright flag to your antenna, at night turn on your interior lights so you can be seen by rescuers
- If you are in a remote location, bundle up and go out and stomp HELP or SOS in the snow and line them with rocks and branches so rescue crews can spot you by plane.
- Now get back in your car and stay there. Snow will actually make buildings appear closer than they really are, and deep snow can make traveling even a short distance difficult and dangerous.
- Only run your engine for 10 minutes every hour, this rations your gas and helps prevent carbon monoxide poisoning
- Clear snow from the exhaust pipe and surrounding area so that the exhaust doesn’t back up into your car
- While your car is running open the downwind window a crack for ventilation
- Use every available insulation source – floor mats, blankets, clothes, etc.
- Huddle with other passengers to maintain body heat, and do mild exercise.
- Take turns on guard duty. It’s important to have one person awake to watch for help at all times, and to keep an eye on the health of those who are sleeping.
- Balance your battery power by using the radio sparingly) and use your lights only at night while using heat and charging the battery when the car is running.
- Once the storm is over use common sense to determine whether to head out on foot. Check the weather for better decision making.
After the Worst is Over
You can finally see out your windows beyond a few feet (unless there’s a drift there), the sky’s have cleared, and your neighbors are digging out from the kitchen window. You feel like an arctic Noah after the dove returns. However there’s still no power, no way of leaving and a lot of shoveling to be done. What do you do know?
- Be a good neighbor – check to see how those close by weathered the storm, especially if you have elderly neighbors (hopefully if you do, you even invited them over for a snow party instead of leaving them home alone)
- If you need to move to a shelter. Text SHELTER + your zip code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the closest shelter.
- Dress for the weather – don’t be afraid of looking like the kid on The Christmas Story. Go all out! Be sure that you have your head covered and mouth and nose partially covered with a scarf to avoid burning your lungs (think freezer burn). Take special care covering ears, fingers, and toes to keep them warm and dry. These are the first victims to frostbite.
- If you’re shoveling, stretch before you go out to prevent injuries, and take breaks to prevent exhaustion (over heating and exterior cold are a BAD combination).
- Prep all walkways for safe travel, or stay on the snow next to them. Ice induced falls are dangerous, not to mention embarrassing. Rock salt or sand can make them much safer.
Naturally This Is a Children’s Playground, but They Shouldn’t Be Left Alone.
Don’t just supervise, but survey the area for hazards like falling snow, large drifts that they can fall into, and downed trees (hopefully you’ve taking note of downed power lines and would stay inside). Designate a play zone boundary. Our family calls these “trouble lines”. With snow we actually draw a “do not cross” boundary to keep them safe.
You have learned to be prepared for a winter storm, but most importantly, don’t forget go play with your kids!
www.ready.gov/winter-weather especially their “More Information” section