Storms can last for days, resulting in power outages, blocked or closed roads, and flooding. Being prepared for winter storms includes understanding weather-related terms, winterizing homes and vehicles, and taking action to protect family members, pets, livestock, and neighbors. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has created winter weather public service announcements (PSAs) and Podcasts to address safety before, during and after storms.

Living in regions where snow, ice, or low temperatures are common, winterizing the home is a good first step in preparing for the winter months. Along with making sure that homes are well-insulated and the plumbing is protected from freezing, it is important to make sure there is an adequate amount of fuel available for heating during the winter months. For information formatted in a child friendly online game from NOAA, click here  – Young Meteorologist Program.

Preparing for Winter Storms

As winter approaches, having vehicles serviced and winterized involves potential life-saving measures. Vehicles should have snow tires or all-weather tires with good tread. In mountainous regions, tire chains are highly recommended and may be mandatory. Always keep the vehicle’s fuel tank at least half-full during the winter months because being stranded in a blizzard and running out of fuel presents an extremely life-threatening situation. The windshield washer fluid reservoir should be checked regularly, and be sure to have a snow/ice scraper in every vehicle. Each vehicle should be equipped with a winter car kit including a shovel, blankets, extra mittens, socks, hats, booster cables, flashlight and batteries, first aid kit, bright colored cloth to use as a flag, snacks, and water.

Predicting Snow and Ice Conditions

A significant number of resources are available at the local, regional and national levels to help citizens predict snow and ice conditions. Paying close attention to developing weather patterns can assist individuals and communities in preparing for serious snow and ice impacts. Close monitoring of TV and radio weather-related news, specifically winter storm alerts, is a very important part of being prepared. Purchasing a weather-alert radio which can be battery or crank operated is also recommended. These radios are readily available at many types of retail stores. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a very reliable source for winter storm warnings. NOAA also provides information on wind chills which can be a major factor in determining many activities such as school closings or whether or not an elderly person or someone with a chronic health condition should go outdoors. Being able to access real-time severe weather information directly for your state through an interactive website has been recently developed at the University of Kentucky.

Personal, Home and Farm Safety Issues

PERSONAL – Winter storm preparedness includes measures that people should take at home, outside clearing snow and/or during recreational activities. Survival outside during the winter begins with dressing adequately for the conditions and anticipating changes. Appropriate clothing involves wearing loose, lightweight, layers plus boots, hats, and mittens. Mittens are a better alternative to gloves because by allowing fingers to be together, they will stay warmer. Jackets or outer garments should be tightly knit, hooded and water repellant.

Much of the body’s heat escapes through a person’s head, therefore it is important to wear a hat. Covering the mouth and nose with a scarf to warm the air entering the lungs is recommended for people who need to be outdoors in extreme cold or wind chill conditions.When working outside or shoveling during a winter storm, avoid overexertion. Cold weather puts an added strain on the heart. Performing activities that the body is not used to will add to the possibility of heart attack or aggravating other chronic health conditions. Take frequent breaks and drink water to stay hydrated.

Hypothermia and cold injuries are two winter health hazards to be concerned about. Hypothermia occurs when the core body temperature drops to a level at which normal muscle and brain functions are impaired. Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow/slurred speech, disorientation, and exhaustion. While actual body temperatures may differ in individuals, a core temperature lower than 95 degrees F. is a common indicator of hypothermia. Cold injuries occur when the body has a reaction to the cold by reducing blood flow to extremities such as the hands or feet. The most serious condition, frostbite, has the following symptoms: loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes or the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately as frostbite can cause permanent damage.

HOMES – Occasionally, there may be a power outage in homes for a period of time during an ice or snow storm. It is important to be prepared for this by knowing how to safely deal with food, drinking water and alternate heating sources. When choosing to use a portable generator during a power outage, safety is an important concern. If using alternate heat sources, carbon monoxide poisoning is a dangerous health risk as well as fires from unattended units. There are additional home issues that may need to be addressed such as roof ice dams and attic condensation.

PETS – It is also important to provide extra care for pets’ safety during a winter storm. Pets that live outside need extra calories to stay warm, so provide them with more feed than during warmer temperatures. Also, make sure their water does not freeze. If indoor pets do go outside, check the temperature prior to letting them outdoors and do not leave them out for long periods. Pets can get frostbite on their ears, tails and paws.

FARMS – Planning for winter includes preparing for the care and safety of livestock. During a winter storm proper preparedness may mean the difference between life or death for farm animals. In addition to issues involving dairy cattle and livestock, the North Dakota State University site which is referenced above provides fact sheets on preparedness for farm facilities and dealing with potential crop damage. After a heavy snowfall or prolonged snow accumulation, snow loads on barn roofs may become an issue.

Travel Considerations

It should be stressed that traveling during a winter storm can be very hazardous and it is best to drive only if absolutely necessary during the storm. Statistics indicate that 70 percent of injuries occurring during snow and ice conditions involve motor vehicle crashes. Multiple vehicle crashes are more common during sleet, freezing rain and dense fog conditions, so it is important to be aware of the weather and realize that a change in the air temperature can quickly deteriorate road conditions. As mentioned earlier, winterizing personal vehicles and carrying emergency supplies are part of being prepared for winter storms even if only traveling to and from work. Carrying a cell phone is an excellent safety measure but it is important to make sure the phone is always fully charged before leaving home.

It is also highly recommended that long-distance travel plans be shared with family members or friends and serious consideration must be given to revising or cancelling a trip, when a winter storm warning has been issued. It is best to travel during daylight, on the main roads and avoid “shortcuts”. During a storm, snow plows will work first to keep the main roads open; snow removal on secondary roads may not be as consistent. If caught in a storm or blizzard during a trip, it is important to pull off the highway, turn on your hazard lights and stay with the vehicle. It is very easy to become disoriented when trying to walk in an unfamiliar area during a heavy snowfall with high winds.

Flooding conditions may occur after a winter storm and can be the result of ice jams on rivers/streams or a sudden thaw. Under no circumstances should anyone try to drive through water pooled or moving over a road. The water may be deeper than it appears and levels can rise quickly. In as little as 6-12 inches of water, a vehicle may float causing loss control.