Is a winter storm on its way to your region? The best time to prepare for it is well before any threat actually arrives.
Winter storms can immobilize a region and paralyze a city, stranding commuters, closing airports, disrupting the flow of supplies, and impacting emergency first responders. Heavy wet snow can cause roofs to collapse and force trees and large limbs to tumble down on nearby structures and power lines. Homes may be isolated for days with electricity and other utility lines cut. The cost of snow removal, repairing damages, and the loss of business can have severe economic impacts on cities and towns.
Beyond heavy snow, winter storms can also bring other weather related dangers. Nor’easters can bring heavy wind, high surf, coastal flooding, and significant beach erosion. Some well know Nor’easters include the notorious Blizzard of 1888, the “Ash Wednesday” storm of March 1962, the New England Blizzard of February 1978, the March 1993 “Superstorm” and the recent Boston snowstorms of January and February 2015. Past Nor’easters have been responsible for billions of dollars in damage, severe economic, transportation and human disruption, and in some cases, disastrous coastal flooding. Damage from the worst storms can exceed a billion dollars.
While most people associate a large snow storm with the word “blizzard”, that is meteorologically incorrect. Blizzards are defined by their winds and visibility; it is even possible to have a blizzard without any fresh snow falling. To meet blizzard criteria, bad weather conditions need to persist for more than 3 hours: namely, winds need to be at 35mph or more and visibility due to either fresh falling snow or blowing fallen snow needs to be reduced down to a quarter mile or less.
You don’t need to have blizzard conditions to have dangerous snow storm conditions. Blowing snow is wind-driven snow that reduces visibility. Blowing snow may be falling snow or it could be snow on the ground that is picked up by the wind. Snow flurries are typically defined as light snow falling for short duration with little to no accumulation while snow showers are known for snowfall at varying intensity for brief periods of time with light accumulations. Snow squalls, however, are severe, brief, intense snow showers accompanied by strong, gusty winds, and while short-lived, snow squalls can produce quick and significant accumulations. In and after snow storms, snow squalls can threaten a region with additional hazards.
When thunder roars, head indoors; lightning can kill in any season. While thunderstorms are typically associated with warmer weather, thunderstorms do pop up in intense winter storms. Lightning in a snow thunderstorm is just as dangerous as lightning in its warmer-weather sibling. The acoustics of fresh snow cover and a landscape typically free of leaves can also help make thunder sound more dramatic than it does at other times of the year. While some may be mesmerized by the sounds and scenes of thunderstorms inside snowstorms, people must remember that a thunderstorm at any time of year in any kind of weather is dangerous.
The National Weather Service is responsible for issuing weather related Warnings, Watches and Advisories for your local area. Issued by county, these advisories are based on local criteria. For example, the amount of snow that triggers a “Winter Storm Warning” in Atlanta, Georgia is much less than the snowfall required to trigger the identical warning in New York City. An Advisory generally means “be aware”; a Watch means “be prepared”; a Warning means “take action.” When a Warning, Watch, or Advisory is issued for your area, the National Weather Service will define the specific threat and will provide you with a time frame for that threat.
When a winter storm is forecast to impact your area, be sure to prepare yourself, your home, and your car. Be sure to check-in on friends, family, and neighbors –especially the elderly and others that may not be aware of the impending winter storm forecast.
- Stay indoors during the storm. Don’t venture out, especially if local officials tell you to remain at home. However, if you’re in a coastal flood threat zone and officials tell you to evacuate, evacuate! Get out as quickly and as safely as possible and get to your designated safe area.
- When you do venture out after the storm, walk carefully on snowy, icy walkways.
- Avoid over-exertion when shoveling snow. Heart attacks from snow shoveling are a major cause of death in the winter. If you must shovel, stretch before going outside. Make sure you’re well hydrated and take frequent breaks.
- Stay dry. Wet clothing will loose all of its insulating value, allowing cold temperatures to permeate to your skin efficiently.
- Watch for signs of frostbite: loss of feeling and an unusually pale appearance in your extremities. If this occurs, seek medical help immediately. Frostbite is a medical emergency! Call 911 for help if you can’t seek medical care yourself.
- Watch for signs of hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering, disorientation, memory loss, slurred speech, drowsiness, and exhaustion. If these symptons appear, get to a warm location as soon as possible. Remove any wet clothing and warm the center of the body first; drink warm, non-alcholic beverage, and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
- Make sure your gutters are clean of debris.
- Drain all outside hoses; shut off outside water valves where possible.
- Make sure your home is well insulated; caulk and weather-strip doors and windows to keep cold air out and warm air in.
- Repair roof leaks and remove tree branches that could get weighed down with ice or snow and fall on your or neighboring homes.
- Wrap water pipes in your basement or crawl spaces with insulation sleeves to slow heat transfer.
- Consider an insulated blanket for your hot water heater to keep water warmer longer should utilities fail.
- If you have a fireplace, keep the flue closed when you’re not using it.
- Have a contractor check your roof to see if it would sustain the weight of a heavy snowfall.
- Make sure your furniture isn’t blocking your home’s heating vents.
- Drive only if it is absolutely necessary. If you must drive, travel during the daylight hours.
- 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. Have spare fluids in your car should you run out.
- Make sure your tires have enough tread. Consider snow tires or chains.
- 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. Never drive with snow on your car.
- Save the numbers for your insurance agent and towing service into your cell phone. Keep a back-up on paper in your car.
- Keep a cold-weather kit in your trunk. It should include a blanket or sleeping bag, gloves, hard candy, bottled water, folding shovel, first aid kit, flashlight and cell phone charger.
- If you become trapped in a vehicle during a winter storm, remain inside and remain calm. Rescuers are more likely to find you there. Run the engine and heater about 10 minutes every hour; be sure to clear snow from your exhaust pipe to reduce your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Move around to maintain heat; use maps, floor mats, and seat covers for insulation. Drink non-alcoholic 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, stomp-out “HELP” or “SOS” in the snow once it’s done falling so rescue crews from the sky have a better chance of locating you.