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Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2018 Vol. 65 No. 12

WINTER STORM PREPAREDNESS

Winter storms can bring extreme cold, freezing rain, ice, snow, high winds, or a combination of all of these conditions. This article, extracted from the FEMA guide on winter storm preparedness, is designed to help you properly prepare for a winter storm and to learn how to protect yourself before, during, and after one.

Planning and preparing can make a big difference in safety and resiliency in the wake of a winter storm. The ability to maintain or quickly recover following a winter storm requires a focus on preparedness, advanced planning, and knowing what to do when the time comes.

Winter storms can cause power outages that last for days. They can make roads and walkways extremely dangerous, and negatively affect critical community services including public transportation, childcare, and health programs. Injuries and deaths may occur from exposure, dangerous road conditions, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other winter storm conditions.

The National Weather Service (NWS) refers to winter storms as “deceptive killers” because most deaths and injuries are indirectly related to the storms. The majority of deaths caused by winter storms are from vehicle accidents due to ice and snow. Heart attacks brought on by over-exertion from shoveling or clearing snow also increase during and after storms. Finally, individuals also suffer dangerous injuries (e.g., frostbite and hypothermia) because of exposure and lack of protection from the wind and cold. Another significant danger is sickness or death from carbon monoxide poisoning which can occur when using portable generators indoors, in attached garages, too close to the house, or when starting a vehicle without clearing snow and ice from the tailpipe.

What you can do before a winter storm
Sign up for local alerts and warnings. The NWS provides alerts and warnings for all hazards through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio (NWR) receiver. There are radio receivers that are designed to work with external notification devices for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. For more information on NWR receivers, visit NOAA Weather Radio Hazards.

You can also register for jurisdiction-specific alerts such as the ones available at the following links:

For information about alerts & warnings within your area, contact your local office of emergency management or district coordinator.

WATCHES AND WARNINGS

Advisories, Watches, and Warnings describe changing winter weather conditions. Learning what these terms mean can help you understand how an approaching storm may impact you and what actions to take to stay safe. Winter Weather related Advisories, Watches, and Warnings are issued by your local National Weather Service office and are based upon local criteria.

Winter Weather Advisories are issued when snow, blowing snow, ice, sleet, or a combination of these wintry elements is expected but conditions should not be hazardous enough to meet Warning criteria. Be prepared for winter driving conditions and possible travel difficulties. Use caution when driving.

Winter Storm Watches are issued when conditions are favorable for a significant winter storm event. Heavy sleet, heavy snow, ice storms, blowing snow, or a combination of these events are possible.

Winter Storm Warnings are issued for a significant winter weather event including snow, ice, sleet, blowing snow, or a combination of these hazards. Travel will become difficult or impossible in some situations. Delay your travel plans until conditions improve.

You may not be at home when a winter storm starts, so it is important to have basic supplies of food and water as well as a way to stay warm without power in several locations such as your workplace, vehicle, and/or school. You can build your supplies over time by adding a few items each week or month. Gather, in advance, the necessary supplies and items you will need to stay safe after the winter storm passes. For a complete list of emergency supplies, visit ready.gov or emergency supply kits. Check supplies off of your Winter Storm Preparedness Checklist once you add them to your emergency kit. Warm clothes and blankets can help prevent hypothermia. Do not forget warm, waterproof, and protective footwear as well as gloves. Ask yourself, “What would I need for myself and my family if a winter storm struck?” and “What would I or my family require if we did not have access to a grocery store or pharmacy for at least three days?” Add any of these specific items to your Winter Storm Preparedness Checklist.

Infographic courtesy of Garretts Realty Group. Infographic courtesy of
Garretts Realty Group.

Winterize your home by insulating walls and attics, caulking and weather-stripping doors and windows, and installing storm windows or covering windows with plastic. Insulate water pipes and allow faucets to drip or trickle during unusually cold weather or if the power and heat are out to avoid freezing. When water freezes, it expands, and this can cause water pipes to burst. Know how to shut off water valves if a pipe bursts. Clear rain gutters, repair roof leaks, check your roof to make sure it can handle the extra weight of snow and ice, and cut away tree branches that could fall on a house or neighboring structure. If you have a fireplace, hire a certified chimney sweep to inspect and/or clean your chimney once a year. Keep pathways and driveways clear between storms to avoid buildup of snow piles and icing. Install battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors or electric detectors with battery backups in central locations on every level of your home.

This will provide an early warning of accumulating carbon monoxide, which is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and potentially deadly gas. Keep fire extinguishers on hand and make sure everyone in your home knows how to use them. If your smoke alarms get power from your home’s electrical system (hardwired), make sure the backup battery is replaced at least once a year, so your alarms will work during a power outage. Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected every year by a qualified professional. Review your property insurance, and safeguard critical documents. Get trained on specific needs your family may have. Identify a place nearby where you can safely warm up should you lose heat in your home. Renters should check with their landlord or property manager to ensure that they have taken care of these necessary building improvements or to find out your responsibilities with respect to these actions.

Winterize your vehicle by conducting a winter weather check on your vehicle to ensure the following car components are within safe working limits:

  • Antifreeze levels
  • Battery and ignition system
  • Brakes
  • Exhaust system (carbon monoxide is odorless and can be fatal)
  • Fuel and air filters
  • Heater and defroster
  • Lights and flashing hazard lights
  • Oil
  • Thermostat
  • Windshield wiper equipment
  • Good winter tires

What you can do during a winter storm

Stay indoors and off the roads. Federal Highway Administration reports indicate that the risk of vehicular accidents rises sharply in winter weather conditions. In an average year, there are more than half a million vehicle crashes when the roads are snowy, slushy, or icy, resulting in nearly 2,000 fatalities and 140,000 injuries. Use caution when approaching bridges and overpasses as these areas tend to ice up faster than normal roadways when temperatures drop. If you must drive, keep emergency supplies of food, water and warm clothing in your car. Maintain as full a tank of gas as possible by refueling more often in case you are stuck in traffic or have an accident and have to wait several hours for assistance. Travel during the day and do not travel alone. Stay on main roads and always let someone know your destination, route, and expected arrival time. If you become stranded in your car on a major highway, remain in your vehicle until help arrives. If you are stranded on a more remote road, use items around you to attract attention for help.

While indoors, close off rooms to consolidate and retain heat. Dress in layers, and use blankets to stay warm. Bring pets into a warm place and out of the storm or severe cold. Never use a generator, camp stove, charcoal grill, or gasoline or propane heater indoors, as these items can start accidental fires, cause electric shock, and/or cause deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. Generators should be used only outdoors and should be located at least 20 feet away from doors, windows, and vents. Never heat a home with a cooktop or oven. Limit your time outdoors, and stay dry. Nearly 100 people die every year from heart attacks brought on by shoveling snow. Use caution, take breaks, push the snow instead of lifting it when possible, and lift lighter loads. Consider clearing the sidewalks of your elderly neighbors or neighbors with disabilities.

If you detect symptoms of frostbite, which is the freezing of the skin and body tissue beneath the skin, in either yourself or another person, seek medical care immediately. Signs of frostbite include loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities, such as the fingers, toes, earlobes, face and the tip of the nose. Hypothermia occurs when one’s body temperature drops to dangerously low levels, so, before addressing symptoms of frostbite, first determine whether you or someone else is showing signs of hypothermia such as uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness or apparent exhaustion. For more information, visit the CDC’s page on frostbite and hypothermia.

As the wind increases, your body is cooled at a faster rate, causing skin temperature to drop. This is why it sometimes “feels” colder than the actual temperature. Wind chill is the temperature it “feels like” when you are outside. The NWS provides a Wind Chill Chart to show the difference between air temperature, and the perceived temperature, and the amount of time until frostbite occurs.

What you can do after a winter storm

After a winter storm, the road to recovery can be challenging. It may take several weeks for clean-up and rebuilding. If your home is damaged, no longer safe, and/or has lost power, you may want to go to a designated public shelter. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code (e.g., SHELTER 20472) to 43362 (FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area. Follow local media for information on shelters. You can also find a shelter near you by checking out the FEMA mobile app: fema.gov/mobile-app. Friends, family, and neighbors will likely be the first to provide help. Plan with neighbors now to help each other and share resources. Nonprofit and faith-based organizations often provide support immediately after a winter storm. If you or someone in your household has a disability, an access or functional need, and receives disability services, contact your local disability service provider for assistance.

Only drive if necessary. Check for snow and ice around your tailpipe before starting your car, and check regularly if idling during a snowstorm. Clean all snow and ice from your car before driving. Dress in warm clothing, stay dry, prevent prolonged exposure to cold and wind, and avoid overexertion clearing/shoveling snow. Overexertion can lead to a medical emergency. Monitor local news and alerts for emergency information and instructions.

Insurance is an essential part of recovery. If you have insurance, you may receive financial compensation for some of your losses. Take pictures to document your damage, and file a claim as soon as possible. Do what you can to prevent further damage (e.g., putting a tarp on a damaged roof) because insurance may not cover damage that occurs after the winter storm. The Federal Government provides assistance only when the President declares an area to be a federal disaster. FEMA may provide financial assistance for basic needs that cannot be met by other sources. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture may also provide disaster assistance. Insurance claims and other forms of assistance may take time to arrive, and, if you are missing key documents, additional delays are possible.

For more help with winter storm preparedness and to download a Winter Storm Preparedness Checklist, visit Ready.gov/prepare.

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