Winter storms can range from a moderate snow over a few hours to sleet, freezing rain, icing or dangerously low temperatures that sometimes are accompanied by strong winds. One of the primary concerns is the winter storm’s ability to knock out heat, power and communications services to your home or office, sometimes for days at a time.
The National Weather Service refers to winter storms as “deceptive killers” because most deaths are indirectly related to the storm. Instead, people die in traffic accidents on icy roads and of hypothermia from prolonged exposure to cold. It is important to be prepared for winter weather before it strikes.
Before Winter Storms and Extreme Cold
To prepare for a winter storm you should do the following:
- Before winter approaches, add the following supplies to your emergency supplies kit:
- Rock salt or more environmentally safe products to melt ice on walkways. Visit the Environmental Protection Agency for a complete list of recommended products.
- Sand to improve traction.
- Snow shovels and other snow removal equipment.
- Sufficient heating fuel. You may become isolated in your home and regular fuel sources may be cut off. Store a good supply of dry, seasoned wood for your fireplace or wood-burning stove.
- Adequate clothing and blankets to keep you warm.
- Listen to a NOAA Weather Radio or other local news channels for critical information from the National Weather Service (NWS). Be alert to changing weather conditions.
- Minimize travel. If travel is necessary, keep a emergency supplies kit in your vehicle.
- Bring pets/companion animals inside during winter weather. Move other animals or livestock to sheltered areas with non-frozen drinking water.
Winterize Your Vehicle
Check or have a mechanic check the following items on your car:
- Antifreeze levels – ensure they are sufficient to avoid freezing.
- Battery and ignition system – should be in top condition and battery terminals should be clean.
- Brakes – check for wear and fluid levels.
- Exhaust system – check for leaks and crimped pipes and repair or replace as necessary. Carbon monoxide is deadly and usually gives no warning.
- Fuel and air filters – replace and keep water out of the system by using additives and maintaining a full tank of gas. A full tank will keep the fuel line from freezing.
- Heater and defroster – ensure they work properly.
- Lights and flashing hazard lights – check for serviceability.
- Oil – check for level and weight. Heavier oils congeal more at low temperatures and do not lubricate as well.
- Thermostat – ensure it works properly.
- Windshield wiper equipment – repair any problems and maintain proper washer fluid level.
- Install good winter tires – Make sure the tires have adequate tread. All-weather radials are usually adequate for most winter conditions.
Update the emergency preparedness kit in your vehicles with:
- a shovel
- windshield scraper and small broom
- battery powered radio
- extra batteries
- snack food
- extra hats, socks and mittens
- first aid kit with pocket knife
- necessary medications
- tow chain or rope
- road salt and sand
- jumper cables
- emergency flares
- fluorescent distress flag
Winterize Your Home
Winterize your home by doing the following:
- Winterize your home to extend the life of your fuel supply by insulating walls and attics, caulking and weather-stripping doors and windows, and installing storm windows or covering windows with plastic.
- Winterize your house, barn, shed or any other structure that may provide shelter for your family, neighbors, livestock or equipment. Clear rain gutters; repair roof leaks and cut away tree branches that could fall on a house or other structure during a storm.
- Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected every year.
- Insulate pipes with insulation or newspapers and plastic and allow faucets to drip a little during cold weather to avoid freezing. Running water, even at a trickle, helps prevent pipes from freezing.
- All fuel-burning equipment should be vented to the outside and kept clear.
- Keep fire extinguishers on hand, and make sure everyone in your house knows how to use them. House fires pose an additional risk, as more people turn to alternate heating sources without taking the necessary safety precautions.
- Learn how to shut off water valves (in case a pipe bursts).
- Insulate your home by installing storm windows or covering windows with plastic from the inside to keep cold air out.
- Hire a contractor to check the structural ability of the roof to sustain unusually heavy weight from the accumulation of snow – or water, if drains on flat roofs do not work.
Caution: Carbon Monoxide Kills
- Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death.
- Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal burning devices inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace or any partially enclosed area. Locate unit away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come indoors.
- The primary hazards to avoid when using alternate sources for electricity, heating or cooking are carbon monoxide poisoning, electric shock and fire.
- Install carbon monoxide alarms in central locations on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas to provide early warning of accumulating carbon monoxide.
- If the carbon monoxide alarm sounds, move quickly to a fresh air location outdoors or by an open window or door. Call for help from the fresh air location and remain there until emergency personnel arrive to assist you.
- For more information on carbon monoxide, visit the CDC’s website.
During Winter Storms and Extreme Cold
- Stay indoors during the storm.
- Walk carefully on snowy, icy, walkways.
- Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow. Overexertion can bring on a heart attack—a major cause of death in the winter. If you must shovel snow, stretch before going outside.
- Keep dry. Change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat. Wet clothing loses all of its insulating value and transmits heat rapidly.
- Watch for signs of frostbite. These include loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately.
- Watch for signs of hypothermia. These include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion. If symptoms of hypothermia are detected, get the victim to a warm location, remove wet clothing, warm the center of the body first and give warm, non-alcoholic beverages if the victim is conscious. Get medical help as soon as possible.
- Drive only if it is absolutely necessary. If you must drive: travel in the day; don’t travel alone; keep others informed of your schedule; stay on main roads and avoid back road shortcuts.
- Let someone know your destination, your route, and when you expect to arrive. If your car gets stuck along the way, help can be sent along your predetermined route.
- If the pipes freeze, remove any insulation or layers of newspapers and wrap pipes in rags. Completely open all faucets and pour hot water over the pipes, starting where they were most exposed to the cold (or where the cold was most likely to penetrate).
- Maintain ventilation when using kerosene heaters to avoid build-up of toxic fumes. Refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet from flammable objects.
- Conserve fuel, if necessary, by keeping your residence cooler than normal. Temporarily close off heat to some rooms.
- If you will be going away during cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, set to a temperature no lower than 55ºF.
Dress for the Weather
If you must go outside:
- Wear several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing rather than one layer of heavy clothing. The outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent.
- Wear mittens, which are warmer than gloves.
- Wear a hat. A hat will prevent loss of body heat.
- Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs.
The best advice for winter weather driving is to avoid it if at all possible. If you have to go out in winter weather, follow these safe driving procedures:
- Decrease your speed and leave yourself plenty of room to stop. You should allow at least three times more space than usual between you and the car in front of you.
- Brake gently to avoid skidding. If your wheels start to lock up, ease off the brake.
- Turn on your lights to increase your visibility to other motorists.
- Keep your lights and windshield clean.
- Use low gears to keep traction, especially on hills.
- Don’t use cruise control or overdrive on icy roads.
- Be especially careful on bridges, overpasses and infrequently traveled roads, which will freeze first. Even at temperatures above freezing, if the conditions are wet, you might encounter ice in shady areas or on exposed roadways like bridges.
- Don’t pass snow plows and sanding trucks. The drivers have limited visibility, and you’re likely to find the road in front of them worse than the road behind.
- Don’t assume your vehicle can handle all conditions. Even four-wheel and front-wheel drive vehicles can encounter trouble on winter roads.
If your rear wheels skid:
- Take your foot off the accelerator.
- Steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go. If your rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right.
- If your rear wheels start sliding the other way as you recover, ease the steering wheel toward that side. You might have to steer left and right a few times to get your vehicle completely under control.
- If you have standard brakes, pump them gently.
- If you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), do not pump the brakes. Apply steady pressure to the brakes. You will feel the brakes pulse — this is normal.
If your front wheels skid:
- Take your foot off the gas and shift to neutral, but don’t try to steer immediately.
- As the wheels skid sideways, they will slow the vehicle and traction will return. As it does, steer in the direction you want to go. Then put the transmission in “drive” or release the clutch, and accelerate gently.
If you get stuck:
- Do not spin your wheels. This will only dig you in deeper.
- Turn your wheels from side to side a few times to push snow out of the way.
- Use a light touch on the gas, to ease your car out.
- Use a shovel to clear snow away from the wheels and the underside of the car.
- Pour sand, kitty litter, gravel or salt in the path of the wheels, to help get traction.
- Try rocking the vehicle. (Check your owner’s manual first — it can damage the transmission on some vehicles.) Shift from forward to reverse, and back again. Each time you’re in gear, give a light touch on the gas until the vehicle gets going.
If winter weather traps you in the car:
- Pull off the highway. Turn on hazard lights and hang a distress flag from the radio antenna or window.
- Remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. Do not set out on foot unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter.
- Run the engine and heater about 10 minutes each hour to keep warm. When the engine is running, open a downwind window slightly for ventilation and periodically clear snow from the exhaust pipe. This will protect you from possible carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Exercise to maintain body heat, but avoid overexertion. In extreme cold, use road maps, seat covers, and floor mats for insulation. Huddle with passengers and use your coat for a blanket.
- Take turns sleeping. One person should be awake at all times to look for rescue crews.
- Eat regularly and drink ample fluids to avoid dehydration, but avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Be careful not to waste battery power. Balance electrical energy needs – the use of lights, heat, and radio – with supply.
- Turn on the inside light at night so work crews or rescuers can see you.
- Leave the car and proceed on foot – if necessary – once the extreme winter weather passes.
National Weather Service
If you require more information about any of these topics, the following resources may be helpful.
- Winter Storms…The Deceptive Killers. Brochure packed with useful information including winter storm facts, how to detect frostbite and hypothermia, what to do in a winter storm and how to be prepared. Available online at: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/brochures/wntrstm.htm
Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety. An extensive document providing information about planning ahead for cold weather, safety both indoors and outdoors in cold weather and cold weather health conditions.
Find additional information on how to plan and prepare for a winter storm and learn about available resources by visiting the following websites: