Well its that time of year, yes I'm talking about winter. And if you live anywhere in the Midwest or Northeast, then you probably already know the drill. Five months of heavy clothes, seeing your breath, and generally freezing cold outside. Old Man Winter has arrived for his yearly visit. For most people, winter brings a time of joy and tranquility, where the snow covered landscape is glistening and beautiful. But with that, winter also brings its own hazards and dangers. The most impactful type of severe weather that occurs during the winter are winter storms, ice storms, and blizzards.
During ice or winter storms it is important to stay warm, and also avoid overexertion. Ideally you will be able to stay indoors during a storm but if you must go outside it is important to walk cautiously to avoid slipping and falling on ice. Shoveling snow can lead to overexertion so it is important to take breaks, and try to avoid lifting heavy piles of snow. If you are outside shoveling and trying to clear away snow during a storm, you need to stay warm and dry to prevent frostbite. Change wet clothing and be able to recognize the signs of frostbite, such as loss of feeling, and pale or white extremities. During a storm, you should avoid driving but if necessary it is important to do so very cautiously. Also make sure that you car has an emergency kit that includes a shovel, food, water, blanket, and other important items.
Severe winter storms can take time to recover from and if a power outage occurs that lasts multiple days it may even be necessary to seek out a public shelter. If you take the time to prepare your home for winter storms and ensure that your family knows what to do to stay safe, you will be prepared to weather the storm.
Beyond the inconvenience and discomfort, winter storms, ice storms, and blizzards can cause real damage. So it's important to think about winter preparedness. Protecting your home is vital. A frozen water pipe can burst and flood your house or basement. An ice dam in your gutter can cause water to seep into and saturate an interior wall. During a snowstorm or blizzard, it is imperative to know the differences between watches and warnings in order to properly prepare or take the appropriate actions and stay safe. In this edition we are going to cover winter storm safety tips and what you can do to better prepare yourself for the brunt of dangerous and deadly winter storms.
Some winter weather tips to help you get through a severe stretch of cold:
- Stay indoors during the storm.
- Walk carefully on snowy, icy walkways.
- Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow. It’s a serious workout, and going at it too hard can bring on a heart attack − a major cause of death in the winter. If you must shovel snow, stretch before going outside.
- Stay dry. Wet clothing loses all of its insulating value and transmits rapidly.
- Watch for signs of frostbite: loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities. If any of these occur, get medical help immediately.
- Watch for signs of hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion.
- If any of the hypothermia symptoms appear, get yourself (or the victim) to a warm location, remove wet clothing, and warm the center of the body first. Give the patient warm, non-alcoholic beverages if they are conscious. And of course, get medical help as soon as possible.
Frostbite: An injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. One of the most common things you may experience with winter storms is something known as wind-chill. Wind-chill is the decrease in "feel like" air temperature felt by the body on exposed skin due to the flow of air. In other words, these strong bitter arctic winds make it feel like it is much colder than the actual air temperature. Never ignore or underestimate wind-chill factors and go off just air temp alone when deciding how to dress when going outside, the wind-chill will effect the body as if it is truly being exposed to the much colder perceived temp, hence the term "feel like". Wind-chill is the most common cause for symptoms of frostbite. The first sign that you are experiencing frostbite is your skin becomes very cold and red, then numb,then hard and pale. In extreme cases of deep tissue frostbite, the skin will die completely and turn black which could lead to amputation. Frostbite is most common on outer extremities such as fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Exposed skin in cold, windy weather is most vulnerable to frostbite, however frostbite can also occur on skin covered by gloves or other clothing. Frostbite most commonly occurs by staying out in the cold and wind too long. The risk increases as air temperature falls below 5 degrees Fahrenheit, even with low wind speeds. In wind chill of -16 F, frostbite can occur on exposed skin in less than 30 minutes. As the wind chill factor increases and the air temperature decreases, the time for frostbite to set in rapidly accelerates. If air temperatures reach -20 to -30F or the wind-chill factor reaches these "feel like" temps, then frostbite can occur in as little as 10 minutes. If you are exposed to these conditions outside for a prolonged period of time, it extremely important to cover all exposed skin. Make sure to wear a stocking cap, gloves, ear muffs or something to cover your ears, a scarf or insulated mask to cover your nose and face as much as possible. Below is a chart illustrating the amount of time frostbite occurs relative to air temperature and wind chill values.
Hypothermia: A medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Hypothermia can become life threatening very quickly. When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can't work normally. Left untreated, hypothermia can eventually lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and eventually to death. Hypothermia can be extremely dangerous due to the fact that you usually aren't even aware you have it because the symptoms often begin gradually. Also, the confused thinking associated with hypothermia prevents self-awareness. The confused thinking can also lead to risk-taking behavior. Symptoms include slurred speech or mumbling, slow, shallow breathing, weak pulse, clumsiness or lack of coordination, drowsiness or very low energy, confusion and memory loss, loss of consciousness.
The most common causes of hypothermia are exposure to cold-weather conditions or cold water such as falling through ice. But prolonged exposure to any environment colder than your body can lead to hypothermia if you aren't dressed appropriately or can't control the conditions.
Specific conditions leading to hypothermia include:
- Wearing clothes that aren't warm enough for weather conditions
- Staying out in the cold too long
- Being unable to get out of wet clothes or move to a warm, dry location
- Falling into the water, as in a boating accident of falling through ice
- Living in a house that's too cold, usually from poor heating
If someone else is experiencing hypothermia, its important to remove the individual from the elements and warm them up as soon as possible. Call 911 immediately and get medical attention right away. While you wait for emergency help to arrive, gently move the person inside if possible. Jarring movements can trigger dangerous irregular heartbeats. So carefully remove the victims wet clothing, replacing it with warm, dry coats or blankets. If you cannot get indoors, start a fire to generate heat.
Winter Storm Theseus was a brutal winter storm that hit portions of the Northeast and New England on April 1st, 2017.
This video courtesy of SVL Media Chaser Emily Pike, shows hazards motorists face on the road, white out conditions, and heavy snowfall.
Prepare your home
Proper preparations to your home could be essential for your survival during winter storms, especially in regions that are prone to strong winter storms or lake effect snow systems. Do you have a plan in place should you lose power and be confined to your home for days? Do you have enough food, essentials, and alternative heat source in your home to maintain you and your family? The first and most important step in preparing your home is to make a "Family Action & Communications Plan". Your family may not be together when disaster strikes, so it is important to know how you will contact one another, how you will get back together, and what you will do in case of an emergency. If you have children home alone, will they know what to do? Sit down and discuss this plan with your family. Make an emergency kit for at least a week of self-sufficiency. No less than three days minimum is recommended. This includes items such as flashlights, candles, batteries, and a standard first aid kit. Keep plenty of blankets on hand and readily accesible. Also keep space heater safety in mind: Use electric space heaters with automatic shut-off switches and non-glowing elements. Remember to keep all heat sources at least three feet away from furniture and drapes. keep your home stocked with enough water and non perishable food items that will last your family for at least seven days. Also if anyone requires the use of medical equipment that is electrically powered, it is imperative you have a back up power supply.
Some tips to brace your home for a winter storm:
- Make sure your home is well insulated and that you have weather stripping around your doors and window sills to keep the warm air inside.
- Make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detector.
- 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 your 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.
- If you have a wood burning fireplace, consider storing wood to keep you warm if winter weather knocks out your heat. Also, make sure you have your chimney cleaned and inspected every year.
- Have at least one of the following heat sources in case the power goes out:
- Extra blankets, sleeping bags and warm winter coats
- Fireplace or wood-burning stove with plenty of dry firewood, or a gas log fireplace
Caution: Each year, an average of 430 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, and there are more than 20,000 visits to the emergency room with more than 4,000 hospitalizations. Carbon monoxide-related deaths are highest during colder winter months. These deaths are likely due to increased use of gas-powered furnaces and alternative heating, cooking, and power sources used inappropriately indoors during power outages.
Never use a kerosene heater, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal burning devices inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace or any partially enclosed area as these pose the greatest threat for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Locate exterior unit away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come indoors. Keep these devices at least 20 feet from doors, windows, and vents.
Never start your vehicle in your garage and use its heater as a source to stay warm.
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.
What to Do Before a Storm Strikes
- Listen to NOAA Weather Radio and your local radio and TV stations for updated storm information. Know what winter storm watches and warnings mean.
- Check on relatives, friends, and neighbors who may need assistance preparing for a storm.
- Be alert to changing weather conditions and avoid unnecessary travel.
- Let faucets drip a little to help prevent freezing.
- Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
Know the Terms
- Freezing Rain: rain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees and power lines.
- Frost/Freeze Warning: issued when temperatures are expected to drop below freezing over a large area for an extended period of time.
- Sleet: rain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet also causes moisture on roads to freeze and become slippery.
- Ice Storm: when ice accumulations are expected during freezing rain situations. Significant ice accumulations are usually 1/4 of an inch or greater.
- Wind Chill: the temperature it "feels like" when you are outside.
- Heavy Snow: snowfall accumulating to 4 inches or more in depth in 12 hours or less; or snowfall accumulating to 6 inches or more in depth in 24 hours or less.
- Winter Weather Advisory: issued by the National Weather Service when a combination of winter weather (snow, freezing rain, sleet, etc.) may present a hazard, but does not meet warning criteria.
- Winter Storm Watch: issued by the National Weather Service when there is a potential for heavy snow or significant ice, usually at least 24 to 36 hours in advance. The criteria for this watch can vary from place to place.
- Winter Storm Warning: issued by the National Weather Service when a winter storm is producing or is forecast to produce heavy snow or significant ice. The criteria for this warning can vary from place to place.
- Blizzard Warning: issued by the National Weather Service for winter storms with sustained or frequent winds of 35 mph or higher with considerable falling and/or blowing snow that frequently reduces visibility to 1/4 of a mile or less. These conditions are expected to last for a minimum of 3 hours.
Prepare your car
One of the biggest hazards people face during winter storms is travel. According to the Department of Transportation, 22% of all vehicle crashes in the U.S. and 16% of the fatalities are due to severe weather such as rain, snow, sleet and ice. Nearly 800 people are killed each year in vehicle accidents related to winter weather or storms. So, prepare your car for treacherous conditions and extremely cold temperatures and know what to do if you find yourself stranded in a vehicle. We've all seen when travel conditions deteriorate. In extreme cases Interstates and highways are shut down, often leaving motorists stranded in their vehicles for hours or even days. Its is equally important to have your vehicle properly maintained and equipped with an emergency kit should you become stranded in your vehicle.
- Drive only if it is absolutely necessary. If you must drive, travel during the day.
- Don’t travel alone. Keep others informed of your schedule.
- Stay on main roads and avoid back road shortcuts.
- Top off antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, gas, oil and other fluids.
- Make sure your tires have enough tread. Consider snow tires.
- Keep bagged salt or sand in the trunk for extra traction and to melt ice.
- Clear snow from the top of the car, headlights and windows.
- Save the numbers for your auto club, insurance agent and towing service into your cell phone.
- Keep an emergency cold-weather kit in your trunk. It should include blankets, sleeping bag, gloves, non perishable food items, bottled water, folding shovel, first aid kit, road flares, flashlight and cell phone charger.
- Make sure you have an emergency charging option for your cellphone or portable devices (battery, solar, hand crank, etc.) in case of a power failure.
If you’re trapped in a vehicle
- Remain inside. Rescuers are more likely to find you there.
- Run the engine and heater about 10 minutes every hour. Clear any snow from the exhaust pipe to reduce your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Move around to maintain heat.
- Utilize your emergency vehicle kit. If you happen to be without blankets or extra clothing to keep yourself warm, you can use maps, floor mats and seat covers for insulation.
- Take turns sleeping. Someone should always be awake to alert rescuers.
- Drink fluids to avoid dehydration.
- Turn on the inside light at night so rescue crews can find you.
If you’re stranded in a remote area, write out the words "SOS" or "HELP" in the snow
Blizzards are the most extreme form of winter storms. A Blizzard is a severe snowstorm characterized by strong sustained winds of at least 35 mph and lasting for a prolonged period of time—typically three hours or more. Blizzards are also the most dangerous as visibility is near zero causing extremely hazardous travel conditions. Blizzards are also the highest contributor to the onset of frostbite or hypothermia due to the wind chills created by the high winds. In the United States, about 400 people die from blizzards each year. Here we are going to discuss specifically what preparations need to be taken during a Blizzard and identifying the difference between a Blizzard Watch VS. a Blizzard Warning so you know what steps to take to prepare yourself.
A winter storm watch is issued when wintry weather conditions are expected in the next 12 to 48 hours. This watch can be upgraded to a blizzard watch when snow and wind gusts of at least 35 mph will drop visibility to less than a quarter mile for three hours or longer.
At Home or Work:
- Working flashlight
- A charged cell phone
- Battery powered radio or television
- Extra food, water and medicine
- First Aid Supplies
- Heating fuel (or turn up the heat prior to the storm if your house uses electrical heat)
- Emergency heating source
- Fire extinguishers
- Carbon monoxide and smoke detectors
On a Farm:
- Move all animals to an enclosed shelter
- Bring extra feed to nearby feeding areas
- Have an extra water supply easily available
In a Vehicle:
- Full or near full gas tank
- Let a friend or relative know your predicted arrival time
- A charged cell phone
- Extra food and water
- Extra gasoline for emergency fuel
A winter storm or blizzard warning is more timely than just a watch. While the classifications for conditions are the same as a winter storm watch, a warning means that these conditions are expected within the next 12 hours or sooner.
When a winter storm warning is issued there is little or no time for preparations and as a result, safety is harder to ensure. See the tips below on what to do depending on your location during the warning.
At Home or in a Building:
- Stay inside
- Close off unneeded rooms to save heat
- Stuff towels or rags in cracks underneath doors to conserve heat
- Cover the windows at night
- Eat and drink to prevent dehydration
- Wear layers of loose-fitting, light-weight and warm clothing
If Caught Outside:
- Find a dry shelter immediately
- Cover all exposed body parts
If Caught Outdoors Without Shelter:
- Prepare a lean-to, wind break, or snow-cave for protection against the wind
- Build a fire for heat and attention purposes
- Place rocks around the fire to absorb and reflect the heat
- Do not eat snow straight off the ground, melt it first.
If Stranded in a Vehicle:
- Stay inside your vehicle
- Run the motor for ten minutes each hour
- Crack the windows to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning
- Make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked
- Tie a colored cloth to your antenna or door
- Raise the hood after the snow stops falling
- Exercise to keep warm and keep your blood flowing
When dealing with a blizzard, you can always expect these three things: snow, ice, and strong winds. Individually, these are a problem on their own, but when they are combined together the result can be catastrophic.
The Weight of Snow
Snow itself doesn’t seem all that heavy. But when a large amount accumulates on rooftops, it can become very heavy and cause the roof to collapse inwards. Now with a hole in your roof, the melted snow and slush fall inside your home, which then begins the cycle of water damage.
Your personal items and irreplaceable things can be destroyed and hard to save. Additionally, a weighted down tree branch, or even the entire tree, can break and fall onto or into your home causing potentially severe structural damage on top of any damage causes from moisture entering your home.
Before the Storm
Before a blizzard hits, salting your roof and gutters may be a good idea. Taking the proper precautions can mean the difference between a simple snow storm and severe structural damage.
The snow and ice can cause a backup in your gutters and produce an ice dam, where snow melts and then refreezes, which can then also cause serious water damage. The same goes for frozen pipes that burst. With the water damage internal, you may not even know the flooding has started.
High winds can also prove to be a serious problem during blizzards. Objects can become airborne and slam into the side of your house, or even break glass, therefore giving snow and ice the opportunity to enter your home and produce water damage.
Driving Safety Tips in Blizzards
- Drive slowly: Accelerate and stop slowly to avoid skids.
- Hang back: Increase the distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. The extra space will provide the longer distance you will need if you have to stop.
- Easy on the brake: Brake early by applying firm, steady pressure on the pedal. Don’t stop if you can avoid it. If you can roll slowly until a traffic light changes, do it. It is much easier to get moving while rolling than from a full stop.
- Taking hills: Don’t power up hills — your wheels may just begin to spin. Instead get momentum before you reach the hill, and slow down when you reach the top.
- Careful on the bridge: Be especially cautious on bridges, which freeze first, and on highway exit ramps, which might have gotten less anti-icing material.
- Avoid cruise control: Don’t use cruise control in wintry conditions because even roads that appear clear can have slippery spots. The slightest tap on your brakes to deactivate the cruise control could cause you to lose control
All-wheel-drive doesn’t help you STOP
Having all four wheels pushing you forward is a good thing. But no AWD system is going to help you stop. Many people assume that having AWD during the winter is Mother Nature’s "Get out of Jail Free" card. However, it doesn't work that way, you still have to allow yourself extra time to stop than normal due to loss of traction caused by snow.
SUVs are not immune to snow
Sport-utilities and crossovers can do many things, but defying the laws of physics isn’t one of them. In fact, the heavier weight and taller center of gravity of a typical SUV could work against you, especially if you need to make a rapid wintry driving maneuver. Again, take things slow, and know that no type of vehicle is impervious to weather.
Steer into a slide – yes, it works
Let’s say you turn right, and suddenly the back of your car starts to slide left…so turn in the DIRECTION OF THOSE REAR WHEELS. When turning left, well, just reverse the direction of these instructions. Steering into a slide looks really cool when racecar drivers do it at high speed on a track. Oversteer, as it’s called, means the back of the car kicks out and the driver quickly flicks the wheel in the opposite direction of travel, to bring things back into line. In the snow, this often feels like it’s happening in slow motion. Be gentle with the steering inputs, keep both hands on the wheel, and ease off the gas. Don’t punch the brakes either. A slide means your tires have given up; they’ve basically walked out on the job because you’ve asked too much from them. Braking hard or gunning the gas during a slide only makes that bad situation all the more worse.
In summary, while it may seem fun to play in a stow storm, it is best if you stay indoors and avoid going anywhere until the storm has passed. Avoid traveling at all costs, and if you must go somewhere, then follow the safety tips highlighted in this blog. As with any storm, be prepared, and have a weather alert radio or a way of receiving watches, warnings, or advisories. Keep an emergency kit in both your homes and vehicles. And most importantly have a family action plan, and make sure everyone in the household knows what to do in the event of an emergency. Winter storms kill more people each year than any other type of severe weather combined. Are you ready to "weather the storm"?