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Winter Storms

The National Weather Service refers to winter storms as the "Deceptive Killers" because most deaths are indirectly related to the storm. People are injured or killed in traffic accidents on icy roads, or suffer from hypothermia due to prolonged exposure to the cold. Winter storms can knock out heat, power and communications, sometimes for days at a time.

photo of a cars off the road.

Winter storms include a variety of weather, including snow or subfreezing temperatures, strong winds and even ice or heavy rain storms. Detailed information on winter storms can be found by contacting the National Weather Service Forecast Office, your local emergency management agency, or by monitoring local TV, radio, and NOAA weather radio.

Take Action Before a Winter Storm

Before winter approaches, add supplies to your emergency kit to prepare for the weather. This may include rock salt to melt ice on walkways, sand to improve traction, snow shovels and other snow removal equipment. Make sure you have adequate clothing and blankets to keep you and your family warm. Consider purchasing a generator to use in the event of prolonged power outages.

Steps to Be Ready

  1. Complete the Family Emergency Plan pdf file and discuss it as a family. This is a simple way of keeping each member of the family informed on critical information: where to reconnect should you become separated, who to call, and what you will do should a winter storm occur.
  2. Complete the Emergency Contacts Card pdf file and place one in your Emergency Kit.
  3. Prepare an Emergency Kit. The Emergency Kit should be easily accessible should you and your family be forced to shelter in place (stay at home) for a period of time.

Take Action in Your Home

  • Have your heating system checked by a professional annually. This will ensure that your system is working safely and efficiently which, in turn, will save you money.
  • If you heat by wood, clean your fireplace or stove, have your chimney flue checked for any buildup of creosote and then cleaned to lessen the risk of fire.
  • Make sure your home is well insulated and that you have weather stripping around your doors and windowsills to keep the warm air inside.
  • Close off unneeded rooms, stuff towels or rags in the cracks under doors and cover windows at night.
  • Use extreme caution when using alternative heating sources. Refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet from flammable objects. When using kerosene heaters, be sure to maintain ventilation to avoid build-up of toxic fumes.
  • To keep pipes from freezing wrap pipes in insulation, heat tape or layers of old newspapers. Cover the newspapers with plastic to keep out moisture and let faucets drip a little to avoid freezing.
  • Learn how to shut off water valves in case a pipe bursts. If the pipes freeze, remove any insulation or layers of newspapers and wrap pipes in rags.
  • Disconnect garden hoses and shut off and drain water from pipes leading to outside faucets. This reduces the chance of freezing in the short span of pipe just inside the house.

Take Action in Your Car

  • Plan ahead for winter travel. Be sure to let someone know where you are going, along with your primary and alternate routes.
  • Prepare your vehicle for winter by checking, or having your mechanic check, your car. This includes antifreeze levels, battery and ignition systems, breaks, exhaust systems, fuel and air filters, lights, oil, and windshield wipers and fluid.

Be Safe During Winter Storms

During severe winter weather, stay indoors to the greatest extent possible. If you have to leave your house, plan ahead and make sure you have emergency supplies in your car, including warm clothing in case your car is stuck.

  • Wear layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing. Several layers of lightweight clothing will keep you warmer than a single heavy coat. Wear gloves (or mittens) and a hat to help prevent loss of body heat. Change wet clothing to prevent loss of body heat.
  • Check on elderly relatives or neighbors who may need additional assistance to ensure their safety.
  • Walk carefully on snowy, icy, walkways.
  • Use caution not to over exert yourself when shoveling snow.
  • Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs from extremely cold air.

Be Safe from Frostbite and Hypothermia

  • Signs of frostbite 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, cover exposed skin, but do not rub the affected area in an attempt to warm it up. Seek medical help immediately.
  • Signs of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion. If symptoms of hypothermia are detected, get the individual to a warm location, remove any damp or wet clothing, and put the person in dry clothing and wrap their entire body in a blanket. It is important to warm the center of the body first. If the person is conscious, give them warm, non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated beverages. Seek medical help as soon as possible.

Be Safe in your Car

  • Avoid driving during winter storms. If you must drive, stay on main roads and avoid back road shortcuts. Try to travel only during the day.
  • Plan ahead for winter travel. Be sure to let someone know where you are going, along with your primary and alternate routes.
  • If you get trapped in your car during a blizzard, pull off the highway. Turn on hazard lights and hang a distress flag from your antenna or window.
    • Remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. Do not set out on foot during a blizzard unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. If you do leave the vehicle, use extra caution because distances are distorted by blowing snow.
    • 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 to guard against possible carbon monoxide poisoning.
    • Huddle with other passengers and use your coat for a blanket.
    • Take turns sleeping. One person should be awake at all times to look for rescue crews.
    • Drink fluids to avoid dehydration.
    • 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.

Take Action After Winter Storms

After the danger from a winter storm passes, or when roads are cleared, seek out additional ways to stay warm. This may include going to a shelter or warming center if your home is not warm. Avoid walking outside on slippery or hilly surfaces until ice has melted. Use caution, as snow and ice can melt during the day and re-freeze as temperatures drop in the evening.

Stay Warm

  • Go to a designated public shelter if your home loses power or heat during periods of extreme cold. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area or contact your local American Red Cross Chapter or emergency management agency. The Red Cross also provides information on shelters through the Red Cross mobile app.
  • Continue to protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia by wearing warm, loose-fitting, lightweight clothing in several layers. Stay indoors, if possible.
  • If you have lost power, use battery-powered flashlights rather than candles or other open flames for light. Many injuries and deaths result from accidental fires caused by candles during winter storms.

Winter Storms Key Terms
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, are expected to prevail for a period of three hours or longer.
Frost/Freeze Warning
Below freezing temperatures are expected.
Freezing Rain
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.
Light snow falling for short durations. No accumulation or light dusting is all that is expected.
Snow falling at varying intensities for brief periods of time. Some accumulation is possible.
Brief, intense snow showers accompanied by strong, gusty winds. Accumulation may be significant.
Blowing Snow
Wind-driven snow that reduces visibility and causes significant drifting. Blowing snow may be snow that is falling and/or loose snow on the ground picked up by the wind.
Winds over 35 mph with snow and blowing snow reducing visibility to near zero.

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