A major winter storm can be lethal. A major winter storm can last for several days and be accompanied by high winds, freezing rain or sleet, heavy snowfall, and cold temperatures. People can become trapped at home, without utilities or other services. Heavy snowfall and blizzards can trap motorists in their cars. Attempting to walk for help in a blizzard can be a deadly decision.
Winter storms are considered deceptive killers because most deaths are indirectly related to the storm. The leading cause of death during winter storms is from automobile or other transportation accidents. Exhaustion and heart attacks caused by overexertion are the two most likely causes of winter storm-related deaths.
House fires occur more frequently in the winter due to lack of proper safety precautions when using alternate heating sources. Fire during winter storms presents a great danger because water supplies may freeze and it may be difficult for firefighting equipment to get to the fire.
Preparing for all types of cold weather conditions and disasters, and responding to them effectively can reduce the dangers caused by winter storms.
Familiarize yourself with these terms to help identify a winter storm hazard:
Rain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees, and power lines.
Rain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet also causes moisture on roads to freeze and become slippery.
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.
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.
Below freezing temperatures are expected.
Have survival kits and emergency supplies on hand at home:
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Portable battery-operated radio and extra batteries
- First aid kit and manual
- Emergency food and water – at least a three day supply of water and non-perishable food for each person in your household
- Manual can opener
- Essential medicines
- Cash and credit cards
- Important family documents and veterinary records
- At least one complete change of clothing and footwear per person. (Include sturdy shoes and work boots, warm coat and hat, gloves or mittens, rain gear, thermal underwear, blankets or sleeping bag)
- Extra blankets and warm clothing
- Non-clumping kitty litter to generate traction on icy surfaces
- Rock salt to melt ice on walkways
- Sand to improve traction
- Snow shovels and other snow removal equipment
- Pet Survival Kit
Suggestions and Reminders: Store your supplies in a convenient place known to all family members. Keep a smaller version of the emergency supplies in the trunk of your car. At least once a year replace batteries, update clothes, etc. Ask your physician or pharmacist about storing prescription medications, and your veterinarian about veterinary medications.
Learn about winter storm risk in your area.
Contact your local emergency management office, National Weather Service office, or American Red Cross chapter for information.
Familiarize yourself with winter storm and blizzard WATCHES and WARNINGS.
A National Weather Service (NWS) winter storm watch means a winter storm is possible in your area.
A NWS winter storm warning means a winter storm is occurring, or will soon occur, in your area.
Freezing Rain is rain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees, and power lines.
Sleet is rain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet also causes moisture on roads to freeze and become slippery.
A NWS Blizzard Warning occurs when there are 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 Warnings occur when below freezing temperatures are expected.
Understand the hazards of wind chill, which combines the cooling effect of wind and cold temperatures on exposed skin.
As the wind increases, heat is carried away from a person’s body at an accelerated rate, driving down the body temperature. “Wind chill” is a calculation of how cold it feels when the effects of wind speed and temperature are combined. A strong wind combined with a temperature of just below freezing can have the same effect as a still air temperature about 35 degrees colder.
- Service snow removal equipment before winter storm season.
- Make sure you have sufficient heating fuel; regular fuel sources may be cut off. For example, store a good supply of dry, seasoned wood for your fireplace or wood-burning stove.
- Dress for the weather.
- 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.
- Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs.
Frostbite is a severe reaction to cold exposure that can cause permanent damage. Symptoms of frostbite are the loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in fingers, toes, nose, and ear lobes.
Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops below normal due to prolonged exposure to temperatures less than 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent stumbling, drowsiness, and exhaustion.
If frostbite or hypothermia is suspected
Warm the victim and seek immediate medical assistance. Never give a frostbite or hypothermia victim something with caffeine in it (like coffee) or alcohol. Caffeine, a stimulant, can cause the heart to beat faster and hasten the effects the cold has on the body. Alcohol, a depressant can slow the heart and also hasten the ill effects of cold body temperatures.
- Winterize your home.
- Insulate walls and attic.
- Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows.
- Install window covers or cover windows with plastic from the inside.
- Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows.
- Install window covers or cover windows with plastic from the inside.
- Prepare your car. Check or have a mechanic check the following items on your car:
- Hire a contractor to check the structural ability of the roof to sustain unusually heavy weight from the accumulation of snow of water, if drains on flat roofs do not work.
- Clear rain gutters.
- 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.
- 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. However, some jurisdictions require that to drive on their roads, vehicles must be equipped with chains or snow tires with studs.
- Maintain at least a half tank of gas during the winter season.
- Purchase a separate auto survival kit for the trunk of each car used by members of your household. Purchase a winter emergency kit for each car you own.
Have some type of safe, emergency heating equipment available.
- Fireplace with ample supply of wood; small, well vented wood, coal or camp stove with fuel; portable space heaters, or kerosene heater. Note: Check with your local fire department on the legality of using kerosene heaters in your community. If kerosene heaters are used, maintain ventilation to avoid build-up of toxic fumes. Also, always refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet away from flammable objects.
- Install and check smoke detectors.
- 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.
Keep pipes from freezing
- Wrap pipes in insulation or layers of old newspapers.
- Cover the newspapers with plastic to keep out moisture.
- Let faucets drip a little to avoid freezing.
- Know how to shut off water valves (in case a pipe bursts).
- Install snow fences in rural areas to reduce drifting in roads and paths, which could block access to homes, barns, and animals’ feed and water.
Use a NOAA Weather Radio with a tone-alert feature to keep you informed of watches and warnings issued in your area.
Contact your local emergency management office or American Red Cross for information on designated public shelters in case you lose power or heat.
- Listen to a battery-powered NOAA Weather Radio, or local radio or television stations for weather reports and emergency information.
- Eat regularly and drink ample fluids, but avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Be aware of changing weather conditions.
- Move animals to sheltered areas.
- Avoid unnecessary travel. Stay indoors and dress warmly during the storm.
- Conserve fuel, if necessary, by keeping your residence cooler than normal.
- Temporarily close off heat to some rooms.
- 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.
- If you must go outside, protect yourself from winter storm hazards.
- Wear layered clothing, mittens or gloves, and a hat.
- Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from extremely cold air. Try not to speak unless absolutely necessary.
- 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. It is best to use the buddy system in case your senses become impaired.
- 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
- Put the person in dry clothing and wrap their entire body in a blanket
- Warm the center of the body first
- Give warm, non-alcoholic or non-caffeinated beverages if the victim is conscious
- Get medical help as soon as possible.
Avoid overexertion, such as shoveling heavy snow, pushing a car or walking in deep 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.
- Use public transportation if possible.
If you have a cell phone or two-way radio available for your use, keep the battery charged and keep it with you whenever traveling in winter weather.
- If you need to drive, let someone know your destination, your route, and when you expect to arrive.
Consider the following:
- Travel in the day, don’t travel alone, and keep others informed of your schedule
- Stay on main roads; avoid back road shortcuts.
- Be aware of sleet, freezing rain, freezing drizzle, and dense fog, which can make driving very hazardous
IF YOU GET STRANDED IN YOUR VEHICLE
- Pull off the highway. Turn on hazard lights and hang a distress flag from the radio antenna or window.
- Stay with 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. Be careful; distances are distorted by blowing snow. A building may seem close, but be too far to walk in the deep snow.
- Occasionally run 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.
- Leave the overhead light on when the engine is running so that you can be seen.
- Do minor exercises to keep up circulation, 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.
- If more than one person is in the car, take turns sleeping. One person should be awake at all times to look for rescue crews.
- Be careful not to waste battery power. Balance electrical energy needs – the use of lights, heat, and radio – with supply.
- If stranded in a remote area, stomp large block letters in an open area spelling out HELP or SOS and line with rocks or tree limbs to attract the attention of rescue personnel who may be surveying the area by airplane.
- Leave the car and proceed on foot – if necessary – once the blizzard passes.
- Continue listening to local radio or television stations or a NOAA Weather Radio for updated information and instructions.
- Help neighbors who may require special assistance.
- Avoid driving and other travel until conditions have improved.
- Avoid overexertion.
- Follow forecasts and be prepared when venturing outside.
ANIMALS AFTER A WINTER STORM
The behavior of animals may change dramatically after any disruption in their routine. Normally quiet and friendly animals may become irritable. Monitor animals closely and only release them in safe and secure enclosures.
Animals may not be allowed in Red Cross shelters for health and space reasons. Prepare an emergency plan and know where you will take all of your animals in the event of a disaster. Temporary animal shelters may be set-up, however, these will fill rapidly. An ideal situation during disasters is to have pre-determined friend or family member that will provide a living space for your whole family, including your animals. Make sure all animals have a current identification tag, license, and vaccinations.