Read the Disclaimer!
Why Talk About Winter Storms?
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A major winter storm can last for several days and be
high winds, freezing rain or sleet, heavy snowfall, and cold
People can become trapped at home, without utilities or other services.
Heavy snowfall and blizzards can trap motorists in their cars.
to walk for help in a blizzard can be a deadly decision.
Winter storms can make driving and walking extremely
aftermath of a winter storm can have an impact on a community or region
for days, weeks, or even months. Storm effects such as
temperatures and snow accumulation, and sometimes coastal flooding, can
cause hazardous conditions and hidden problems for people in the
What Are Winter Storms, and What Causes Them?
A winter storm can range from a moderate snow over a few hours to
conditions with blinding wind-driven snow that lasts several days. Some
winter storms may be large enough to affect several states, while
may affect only a single community. Many winter storms are accompanied
by low temperatures and heavy and/or blowing snow, which can severely
Winter storms can be defined differently in
various parts of
the country. Heavy snow in the south can be a dusting in the mountains.
Check with your local emergency management office, National Weather
(NWS) office, or local
American Red Cross for terms and definitions specific to your
Sleet is raindrops that freeze into ice pellets
the ground. Sleet usually bounces when hitting a surface and does not
to objects; however, it can accumulate like snow and cause a hazard to
motorists. Freezing rain is rain that falls onto a
a temperature below freezing; this causes it to freeze to surfaces,
as trees, cars, and roads, forming a glaze of ice. Even small
of ice can cause a significant hazard. An ice storm occurs
freezing rain falls and freezes immediately on impact; communications
power can be disrupted for days, and even small accumulations of ice
cause extreme hazards to motorists and pedestrians.
Learn about winter storm risk in your area.
Contact your local
emergency management office, National Weather Service office, or
Red Cross chapter for more information.
Know what winter storm and blizzard WATCHES and WARNINGS mean.
Winter storms are considered deceptive killers because most
indirectly related to the storm.
National Weather Service (NWS)
WATCH is a message indicating that conditions favor the
of a certain type of hazardous weather. For example, a severe
watch means that a severe thunderstorm is expected in the next six
or so within an area approximately 120 to 150 miles wide and 300 to 400
miles long (36,000 to 60,000 square miles). The NWS Storm Prediction
issues such watches. Local NWS forecast offices issue other watches
flood, winter weather, etc.) 12 to 36 hours in advance of a possible
weather or flooding event. Each local forecast office usually covers a
state or a portion of a state.
- An NWS WARNING indicates that a
hazardous event is occurring or
is imminent in about 30 minutes to an hour. Local NWS forecast offices
issue warnings on a county-by-county basis.
- A winter storm WATCH means a winter
storm is possible in your area.
- A winter storm WARNING means a winter
storm is occurring, or will
soon occur, in your area.
- A blizzard WARNING means sustained
winds or frequent gusts to 35
miles per hour or greater and considerable falling or blowing snow
visibility to less than a quarter mile) are expected to prevail for a
of three hours or longer.
The leading cause of death during winter storms is
or other transportation accidents. Exhaustion and heart
by overexertion are the two most likely causes of winter storm-related
deaths. Elderly people account for the largest percentage of
victims. Many older Americans literally "freeze to death" in
own homes after being exposed to dangerously cold indoor temperatures,
or are asphyxiated because of improper use of fuels such as
briquettes, which produce carbon monoxide.
House fires occur more frequently in the winter
due to lack of
proper safety precautions when using alternate heating sources (unattended
fires, disposal of ashes too soon, improperly placed space heaters,
Fire during winter storms presents a great danger because water
may freeze and it may be difficult for firefighting equipment to get to
Plan for a Winter Storm
Develop a Family Disaster Plan. Please see the "Family
Disaster Plan" section for general family planning
a winter storm-specific plan. Learn about your area's winter
Different areas have different risks associated with winter
Contact your local Red Cross chapter, emergency management office, or
National Weather Service office about your area's winter storm risk.
If you are at risk from winter storms:
- Understand the hazards of wind chill, which
combines the cooling effect
of wind and cold temperatures on exposed skin. As the wind
heat is carried away from a person's body at an accelerated rate,
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
wind combined with a temperature of just below freezing can have the
effect as a still air temperature about 35 degrees colder.
- Service snow removal equipment before winter
storm season. Equipment
should be available for use if needed. Maintain it in good working
- Keep your car's gas tank full for emergency use
and to keep the fuel
line from freezing.
- Get training. Take an American Red
Cross first aid course to learn
how to treat exposure to the cold, frostbite, and hypothermia.
- Discuss with your family what to do if a winter
storm WATCH or WARNING
is issued. Designate one household member as the winter storm
leader. Have him or her discuss what to do if a winter storm watch or
is issued. Have another household member state what he or she would do
if caught outside or in a vehicle during a winter storm. Everyone
know what to do in case all family members are not together. Discussing
winter storms ahead of time helps reduce fear and lets everyone know
to respond during a winter storm.
Assemble a Disaster
Please see the section "Disaster
for general supplies kit information. Winter Storm-specific supplies
include the following:
- A warm coat, gloves or mittens, hat and
water-resistant boots for each
member of the family.
- Extra blankets and warm clothing.
- Nonclumping kitty litter. Kitty litter will
generate temporary traction.
Rock salt will melt ice on walkways but can damage vegetation and
Other, less damaging, ice melting products are available from building
- Disaster Suplies Kit basics.
What to Tell Children
- The best way to stay safe in a snowstorm is to
stay inside. Long
periods of exposure to severe cold increases the risk of frostbite or
Also, it is easy to become disoriented in blowing snow.
- If you go outside to play after a snowstorm,
dress in many layers and
wear a hat and mittens. Many layers of thin clothing are
single layers of thick clothing. One of the best ways to stay warm is
wear a hat; most body heat is lost through the top of the head. Keep
and feet warm too. Mittens are warmer than gloves. Covering the mouth
a scarf protects lungs from extremely cold air.
- Come inside often for warm-up breaks.
Long periods of exposure severe
cold increases the risk of frostbite or hypothermia.
- If you start to shiver a lot or get very tired,
or if your nose, fingers,
toes, or earlobes start to feel numb or turn very pale, come inside
away and tell an adult. These are signs of hypothermia and
If you experience these symptoms, you will need immediate attention to
prevent further risk.
How to Protect Your Property
- Make sure your home is properly insulated. If
necessary, insulate walls
and attic. This will help you to conserve electricity and
home's power demands for heat. Caulk and weather-strip doors and
to keep cold air out, allowing the inside temperature to stay warmer
- Install storm windows or cover windows with
plastic from the inside.
This will provide an extra layer of insulation, keeping more cold air
- To 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.
- 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). A hand-held hair
with caution to prevent overheating, also works well.
- Consider storing sufficient heating fuel.
Regular fuel sources may
be cut off. Be cautious of fire hazards when storing any type of fuel.
- Before winter, be sure you install and check
- Consider keeping safe emergency heating
- Fireplace with ample supply of wood.
- Small, well-vented wood, coal, or camp stove with fuel.
- Portable space heater or kerosene heater. Check
with your local fire
department on the legality of using kerosene heaters in your community.
Use only the correct fuel for your unit and follow the manufacturer's
Refuel outdoors only, and only when cool. Keep your kerosene
at least three feet away from furniture and other flammable objects.
- When using alternative heat from a fireplace, wood stove,
etc., use fire safeguards and ventilate properly.
Fire hazard is
greatly increased in the winter because alternate heating sources are
without following proper safety precautions.
- 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.
- If you live in a flood-prone area, consider
purchasing flood insurance
to cover possible flood damage that may occur during the spring thaw.
Homeowners' policies do not cover damage from floods. Ask your
agent about the National Flood Insurance Program if you are at risk.
Media and Community Ideas
- Sponsor a "Winter Weather Awareness Day" or week
just before winter
storm season. This is a good way to get emergency management
and local Red Cross representatives involved.
- Publish a special section in your local
newspaper with emergency information
about winter storms. Place special emphasis on what people
if they are caught out in the open or in a vehicle.
- Inform your community about the different
National Weather Service announcements -
winter storm watch, winter storm warning, ice storm warning, heavy snow
warning, blizzard warning, severe blizzard warning, and high wind
- Conduct a series of presentations at the
beginning of the winter storm
season. Include information on alternative heat sources and
- Interview local physicians about the dangers of
hypothermia and other
winter health conditions. Include discussions of exhaustion
attacks caused by overexertion.
- Advise people of the dangers of winter driving,
and warn them driving
in winter storms can be a risk to their lives. Produce a series of
on what to do if you are stuck in your car during a blizzard.
What to Do Before a Winter Storm
- Use a NOAA Weather Radio with a tone-alert
feature to keep you informed
of watches and warnings issued in your area.The tone alert
will automatically alert you when a watch or warning is issued.
- Contact your local emergency management office
or American Red Cross
for information on designated public shelters in case you lose power or
What to Do During a Winter Storm WATCH
- Listen to a NOAA Weather Radio, or local radio
or television stations
for updated information. Local authorities will provide you
best information for your particular situation.
- Be aware of changing weather conditions.
Severe weather can happen
quickly. Temperatures may drop rapidly, winds may increase or snow may
fall at heavier rates. What is happening where you are may not agree
- Move animals to sheltered areas. Have
a water supply available.
Most animal deaths in winter storms are from dehydration.
- Avoid unnecessary travel. Your safest
place during a winter storm
is indoors. About 70 percent of winter deaths related to ice and snow
What to Do During a Winter Storm WARNING or a Blizard WARNING
- Stay indoors and dress warmly during the storm.
Wearing layers of
loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing will keep you warmer than one
bulky sweater. Remove layers to avoid overheating, perspiration and
- Listen to a battery-powered radio or television
for updated emergency
information. If the power goes out, you will still have
access to important
- Eat regularly. Food provides the body
with energy for producing
its own heat.
- Keep the body replenished with fluids to prevent
liquids such as warm broth or juices. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
a stimulant, accelerates the symptoms of hypothermia. Alcohol, such as
brandy, is a depressant and hastens the effects of cold on the body.
also slows circulation and can make you less aware of the effects of
Both caffeine and alcohol can cause dehydration.
- Conserve fuel. Winter storms can last
for several days. Great demand
may be placed on electric, gas, and other fuel distribution systems
oil, propane, etc.). Suppliers of propane and fuel oil may not be able
to replenish depleted supplies during severe weather. Electric and gas
services may be temporarily disrupted when many people demand large
at the same time. Lower the thermostat to 65°F during the day
at night. Close off unused rooms, and stuff towels or rags in cracks
doors. Cover windows at night.
If you must go outside, protect yourself from winter storm
If you must go out during a winter storm, use public
if possible. About 70 percent of winter deaths related to ice
occur in automobiles.
- Wear layered clothing, mittens or gloves, and
a hat. Layering clothes
will keep you warmer than a single heavy coat. Outer garments should be
tightly woven and water repellent. Mittens or gloves and a hat will
loss of body heat. Mittens are warmer than gloves because fingers
more warmth when they touch each other. Half of your body heat loss is
from the head.
- Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from
extremely cold air.
Avoid taking deep breaths; minimize talking.
- Watch for signs of hypothermia and frostbite.
Frostbite is a severe
reaction to cold exposure that can cause permanent harm to people. A
of feeling and a white or pale appearance in fingers, toes, nose, or
are symptoms of frostbite. Hypothermia is a condition brought on when
body temperature drops to less than 95°F. Symptoms of
uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent
drowsiness, and exhaustion. Hypothermia is not always fatal, but for
who survive there are likely to be lasting kidney, liver, and pancreas
- If frostbite or hypothermia is suspected, begin
warming the person
slowly and seek immediate medical assistance. Warm the person's trunk
Using your own body heat will help. Arms and legs should be warmed last
because stimulation of the limbs can drive cold blood toward the heart
and lead to heart failure. Put the person in dry clothing and wrap
entire body in a blanket. Never give a frostbite or hypothermia victim
alcohol or something with caffeine in it, like coffee or tea. Caffeine,
a stimulant, can cause the heart to beat faster and hasten the effect
cold has on the body. Alcohol, a depressant, can slow the heart and
hasten the ill effects of the cold.
- Keep dry. Change wet clothing
frequently to prevent a loss of body
heat. Wet clothing loses much of its insulating value and transmits
rapidly away from the body.
- Stretch before you go out. If you go
out to shovel snow, do a few
stretching exercises to warm up your body. This will reduce your
of muscle injury.
- Avoid overexertion, such as shoveling heavy
snow, pushing a car or walking
in deep snow. The strain from the cold and the hard labor may
a heart attack. Sweating could lead to a chill and hypothermia.
- Walk carefully on snowy, icy sidewalks.
Slips and falls occur frequently
in winter weather, resulting in painful and sometimes disabling injury.
- Have your car(s) winterized before the winter
storm season. Keeping
your car(s) in good condition will decrease your chance of being
in cold weather. Have a mechanic check your battery, antifreeze, wipers
and windshield washer fluid, ignition system, thermostat, lights,
hazard lights, exhaust system, heater, brakes, defroster, and oil
If necessary, replace existing oil with a winter grade oil. Install
winter tires. Make sure the tires have adequate tread. All-weather
are usually adequate for most winter conditions. However, some
require that to drive on their roads, vehicles must be equipped with
or snow tires with studs.
- 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
If you should become stranded, you will be able to call for help,
rescuers of your location.
- Keep a windshield scraper and small broom in
your car for ice and snow
- Put together a separate disaster supplies kit
for the trunk of each
car used by members of your household. You should also bring
of warm broth if you are on the road during a winter storm. If you
become stranded during a winter storm, these items will make you more
until the storm passes. The kit should include the following:
- Several blankets or sleeping bags.
- Rain gear and extra sets of dry clothing, mittens,
socks, and a wool cap.
- Extra newspapers for insulation.
- Plastic bags for sanitation.
- Canned fruit, nuts, and high energy "munchies."
Non-electric can opener
- Several bottles of water. Eating snow will lower your
If necessary, melt it first.
- Cans of broth or soup.
- A small shovel, a pocket knife, and small tools, such
as pliers, a wrench,
- A small sack of sand for generating traction under
wheels, a set of tire
chains or traction mats.
- Jumper cables.
- A first aid kit and necessary medications.
- A flashlight with extra batteries.
- A candle in a metal can or other fireproof container.
While candles are
generally not recommended in disaster situations, having one in your
can be a source of heat and light if you are stranded.
- Cards, games, and puzzles.
- A brightly colored cloth to tie to the antenna.
- Keep your car's gas tank full for emergency
use and to keep the fuel
line from freezing.
- Plan long trips carefully. Traveling
during winter weather can be
hazardous. Listen to the radio or call the state highway patrol for the
latest road conditions. Plan to travel during daylight and, if
take at least one other person.
- Let someone know your destination, your route,
and when you expect to
arrive. If your car gets stuck along the way, help can be
your predetermined route.
- Be aware of sleet, freezing rain, freezing
drizzle, and dense fog, which
can make driving very hazardous. The leading cause of death
winter storms is from automobile or other transportation accidents.
winter weather conditions, multiple vehicle accidents are more likely
occur, resulting in injury and death. Avoid driving during sleet,
rain, freezing drizzle, and dense fog - these serious conditions are
If you do get stuck:
- Stay with your vehicle. Do not leave
the vehicle to search for assistance
unless help is visible within 100 yards. Disorientation and confusion
very quickly in blowing snow. Avoid traveling during winter storms. If
you must travel and do become stranded, it is better to stay in the
and wait for help.
- Display a trouble sign to indicate you need
help. Hang a brightly
colored cloth (preferably red) on the radio antenna and raise the hood
(after snow stops falling).
- Occasionally run engine to keep warm.
Carbon monoxide can build
up inside a standing vehicle while the engine is running, even if the
pipe is clear. Experience has shown that running the heater for 10
every hour is enough to keep occupants warm and will reduce the risk of
carbon monoxide poisoning and conserve fuel. Turn on the engine for
10 minutes each hour (or 5 minutes every half hour). Use the heater
the engine is running. Keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow and slightly
open a downwind window for ventilation.
- Leave the overhead light on when the engine is
running so that you can
- Do minor exercises to keep up circulation.
Clap hands and move arms
and legs occasionally. Try not to stay in one position for too long.
- If more than one person is in the car, take
turns sleeping. One
of the first signs of hypothermia is sleepiness. If you are not
periodically to increase body temperature and circulation, you can
- Huddle together for warmth.
- Use newspapers, maps, and even the removable
car mats for added insulation.
Layering items will help trap more body heat.
- Keep a window that is away from the blowing
wind slightly open to let
- Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia.
Severe cold can cause
numbness, making you unaware of possible danger. Keep fingers and toes
moving for circulation, huddle together, and drink warm broth to reduce
risk of further injury.
- Drink fluids to avoid dehydration.
Bulky winter clothing can cause
you to sweat, but cold dry air will help the sweat evaporate, making
unaware of possible dehydration. When individuals are dehydrated, they
are more susceptible to the effects of cold and heart attacks. Melt
before using it for drinking water. Eating snow lowers your body
increasing risk from hypothermia.
- Avoid overexertion. Cold weather
puts an added strain on the heart.
Unaccustomed exercise such as shoveling snow or pushing a car can bring
on a heart attack or make other medical conditions worse.
What to Do After a Winter Storm
Produced by the National Disaster
Education Coalition: American
Red Cross, FEMA,
IAEM, IBHS, NFPA, NWS, USDA/CSREES,
and USGS. HTML
formating By the
- Continue listening to local radio or
television stations or a NOAA Weather
Radio for updated information and instructions. Access may be
to some parts of the community, or roads may be blocked.
- Help a neighbor who may require special
assistance - infants, elderly
people, and people with disabilities. Elderly people and
disabilities may require additional assistance. People who care for
or who have large families may need additional assistance in emergency
- Avoid driving and other travel until
conditions have improved. Roads
may be blocked by snow or emergency vehicles.
- Avoid overexertion. Heart attacks
from shoveling heavy snow are
a leading cause of deaths during winter.
- Follow forecasts and be prepared when
venturing outside. Major winter
storms are often followed by even colder conditions.
From: Talking About Disaster: Guide for Standard
by the National Disaster Education Coalition, Washington, D.C., 1999.
For information pertaining to emergency planning and response in your
own state, please see our state pages:
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