Best Strategies for Surviving
Winter Storm Disasters...



Types of Winter Storm Disasters--Blizzards, Chinooks, and Ice Storms.

Winter storms come in several forms--basic snow storm, blizzards, chinooks, and ice storms. The simple snow storm is the building block for all of the rest. The basic snow storm requires a near surface temperature close to freezing (32 o F.) for the snow to form and mass in depth.

Moisture comes down in the form of snowflakes and will gradually build depth from several inches to many feet depending on the latitude and time of year. To the regular snow storm add heavy, consistent winds, and you get the blizzard. Then add a warming temperature and you get the chinook with heavy wet, blowing snow. Then drop the temperature down to freezing after warming and you get an ice storm which causes ice to form on trees and utility lines weighting them down until they break. Tree branches are broken off or entire trees are destroyed falling on people, cars, and homes. I guess it's nature's way of prunning!

The primary component of a winter snow storm is the actual snow. More technically, snow is a type of precipitation within the Earth's atmosphere in the form of crystalline water (ice) called snowflakes.




When a great multitude of them fall from clouds, you have a snowstorm. Since snow is composed of small ice particles, it is a granular material but very light and soft. It has an open structure, unless packed by external pressure. Snowflakes come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Types which fall in the form of a ball due to melting and refreezing, rather than a flake, are known as graupel. Ice pellets and snow grains are examples of graupel. The process of precipitating snow is called snowfall. Snowfall tends to form within regions of upward motion of air around a type of low-pressure system known as an extra-tropical cyclone.

If accompanied with sustained winds or frequent gusts of 35 miles per hour or greater, the snow storm becomes classified as a blizzard. These are one of the most dangerous types of snow storms since the wind can drift snow quite high and fairly quickly. Visibility is reduced to less than a quarter of a mile and at times to several yards if really severe. Livestock without shelter can suffocate when buried too deeply in the snow and/or their nostrils become coated over with snow and ice. Additionally, they can often starve to death or die of hyperthermia since they can’t get food to restore their energy to keep up their body temperature.

An interesting variant of a winter storm is the Chinook. Chinooks are a type of late winter wind that can raise ground temperatures as much as 55-60 o F. in several hours. This melts existing snow quite rapidly, sometimes as much as a foot of snow in a day. The rapid temperature increase often leads to flooding in an area and a rapid rise in streams and rivers. As Chinook winds move out of an area, the temperature will drop right back to where it was initially, often below 0o F. These storms occur more towards the spring in higher latitudes from Colorado north. Some Chinooks coming off the Rocky Mountains have been known to move as far east as the Mississippi River.

Wet snow brings with it, its own special dangers. Driving sleet or wet snow is particularly deadly to wildlife, livestock, and people. The weight of the snow due to the moisture content can become quite burdensome to walk in and clothing and animal fur soon become saturated making them both quite heavy. The weight is caused by the cohesive nature of the water in the snow. When clothing or animal fur becomes wet, it begins to pull out body heat leading to hypothermia. Wet snow can also damage trees by breaking off many branches and even uproot them if the appropriate size.

When it’s not cold enough for snowflakes to form but too cold for rain to stay in a liquid form, an ice storm is created consisting of sleet which is a mixture of snow with rain. When this mixture hits the ground it turns to ice if the temperature conditions are right (32 o F. or less). For flat surfaces this creates the condition of “black ice” which is very dangerous for pedestrians and cars. People slip and fall easily and cars are helpless to navigate or stop. These usually occur in the early spring when moisture content is higher. This sleet can accumulate on buildings and utility lines. When on buildings, it is dangerous to be under the ice when it melts enough to detach itself and falls. On utility lines, the ice can build up and become so heavy that the weight breaks the lines causing serious phone and electrical failures and whole neighborhoods can be without power for several weeks.

Frosts and freezes precede winter storms as the harbingers of winter. They also come in early spring often at a time when fruit trees are beginning to bud which usually ruins fruit production for the year. Frosts occurs when a dew point is reached which is near freezing. Windows and roofs of homes show this light dusting of frost which is sometimes mistaken for snow. Freezes occur when the surface temperature fall below 32o F. for several hours. The danger here involves the damage or breakage of containers having water in them. Engines without antifreeze will suffer cracking their cylinder blocks, plumbing lines and valves can be cracked and begin loosing water. Delicate plants and food crops are often ruined by sustained frosts unless precautions are taken to protect the plants.

Heavy snowfall and extreme cold can immobilize an entire region. Even areas that normally experience mild winters can be hit with a major snowstorm or extreme cold. (Like Florida, Arizona, and Houston, TX). Winter storms can result in flooding, blizzards, closed highways, blocked roads, downed power lines and hypothermia.

Feasibility of Winter Storms Where You Live.

Winter storms can affect just about any state in the continental U.S. and Alaska of course. Although snow may seldom occur in the remote Southwest and Southeast, other moisture and temperature problems can occur. Thanks to enormous improvements in weather prediction, global satellites, and super computers, meteorologists are getting very good at accurately predicting weather patterns right down to how much snow, rain, wind, or temperature can be expected pinpointing their predictions within several hours.

Living in the Phoenix area you soon become oblivious to snow weather let alone any weather. In fact, "weather" is something that other areas outside of Phoenix have! In my traveling days as a computer consultant I can't count the times I left the area in the winter with enough clothing to stay warm and dry outside of Phoenix! I once spent a week in London and Zurich with nothing more than a thin sweater and a felt hat that I was fortunate enough to have packed! Miserable week it was!

To monitor the situation in your area you can access local weather stations on TV or radio or the National Weather Service (NOAA of the Federal Government) via the internet. See Additional Resources section below.

What Typically Happens When a Winter Storm Occurs?

Well of course it depends--as they say in the consulting business! In the higher latitudes and/or altitudes, where temperatures are at or below freezing, the storm begins with falling snow that increases in intensity. Usually, the snow is accompanied by some level of wind to cause drifting and flurries above the ground cutting visibility significantly. The greater the amount of snow and wind, the higher the drifts will become sometimes exceeding 10-12 feet. Storms can last up to a week, sometimes longer.

In lower latitudes and/or altitudes, if near freezing temperatures can’t be reached; snow is not as likely as rain. Sometimes a winter storm starts with cold rain and as the day or night progresses, temperatures drop low enough for snow to form and remain on the ground. When snow isn’t able to form, but the rain freezes, you have ice/sleet winter storms which create their own kind of havoc with extremely slippery highways and sidewalks and gradually burdened utility lines to the point of failure isolating large areas of businesses and residential neighborhoods from electrical power and landline communications.

Surviving Winter Storm Disasters by Proper Planning and Preparation

Of course, not all winter storms result in disasters. But, unless your are properly prepared even a basic winter storm could create a personal disaster situation for you and your family.

Winter storms can occur with little warning and the window of preparation is too small not to be prepared in advance for this kind of weather occurrence. Something as simple as not checking the weather report before you travel somewhere can place you into a bad situation. I made this mistake once in Wyoming traveling to my hometown and getting caught in a horrific blizzard.

Below is a recommended list collected from various sources and experts on how to prepare and act for various kinds of winter storms to prevent them from becoming a problem for you.

Consider adding the Following Supplies to Your Disaster Supply Kit for Winter

  • Rock salt--to melt ice on walkways or try the new vodka product which is more effective.

  • Non-clumping kitty litter—to make driveways and sidewalks less slippery.

  • Sand--to improve traction

  • Snow shovels--and other snow removal equipment.

Prepare Your Home and Family

  • Prepare for possible isolation in your home.

  • Have sufficient heating fuel on hand or within easy and certain access; regular fuel sources may be cut off. For example, store a good supply of dry,seasoned wood for your fireplace or wood-burning stove. If your home heater requires electricity to run fans and/or has an electric igniter, some type of home generator would be prudent.

    Generators, inverters, and batteries would also be of great value if the home were to lose electricity to your refrigerator and freezer. Backup batteries for your home thermostat would also be a good item to have on hand also if it requires them.

  • Winterize your home.
  • Extend the life of your fuel supply by insulating walls and attics, caulking and weather-stripping doors and windows, and installing storm windows or covering windows with plastic. (Before the season starts !)

  • Winterize your house, barn, shed or any other structure that may provide shelter.

  • If possible, winterize all buildings where family, livestock, or equipment can reside. Clear rain gutters; repair roof leaks and cut away tree branches that could fall on a house or other structure during a storm.

  • Insulate all pipes that could be at risk.
  • Use applicable types of insulation and plastic for items containing water. Allow faucets to drip a little during cold weather to avoid freezing. In really cold areas, wrapping your exposed pipes with heat tape might be required. For external water valves, be sure to use either freeze-resistant valves and/or insulated covers. External hose bibs can really make a mess under your home or in the walls if they freeze.

  • Keep fire extinguishers on hand.

  • Make sure everyone in your house knows how to use fire extinguishers properly and where they are located. House fires pose an additional risk, as more people turn to alternate heating sources without taking the necessary safety precautions such as cooking with barbeque equipment indoors creating carbon monoxide—a silent killer.

  • Learn how to shut off water valves (in case a pipe bursts).

  • Know ahead of time what you should do to help elderly or disabled friends, neighbors or employees.
  • Hire a contractor to check the structural ability of the roof.

  • Verify the ability of your roof to withstand the weight of several feet of snow. For flat roofs, you additionally want to ensure that the drains are in good working order.

    Carbon Monoxide

    Consider installing CO alarms throughout home since it is undetectable by smell. A number of years ago, I personally knew an old rancher in my area that took his tracker into barn during a blizzard and he left it running with the door shut. Apparently, the engine made it warmer and he forgot about the carbon monoxide. They found him several hours later with the tractor still running. I have been high-centered in a snow storm once and was afraid to keep the car running except for 5-10 minutes at a time because I was concerned about exhaust fume coming into the car with the snowpack being tight againts the bottom. It was a dangerous trade-off of freezing to death or dying from potential carbon monoxide fumes before someone discovered me. This strategy worked out for the best and I was able to survive.

  • Have backup light sources

  • Always a good chance that electric power will fail so be sure to have a good supply of candles, kerosene lamps/fuel, white gasoline and mantels for lanterns, batteries or propane lanterns to last for a week depending upon your climate profile.

  • Suitable food supplies in the pantry for a minimum of a week, preferably a month.

  • Pets

  • Bring animals inside. Livestock needs to be well sheltered with enough food and water.

  • Cash

  • Have a suitable quantity of cash on hand in the event of electric grid failure when credit and debit cards will be useless and intranet transactions cannot be executed.

  • Emergency Contact

  • Have accurate emergency contact information and numbers. Know where designated shelters exist should your home run out of fuel.

  • Miscellaneous

  • Medicines, vitamins, hearing aid batteries, and cell phone chargers. Would be good to have a solar/battery operated radio, weather radio, or even a 2-Way radio.

    Prepare Your Car

  • Check or have a mechanic check the following items on your car:

  • Antifreeze levels - ensure they are sufficient to avoid freezing for your climate profile.

  • Battery and ignition system - should be in top condition and battery terminals should be clean.

  • Brakes - check for wear and fluid levels.

  • Exhaust system - check for leaks and crimped pipes and repair or replace as necessary. Carbon monoxide is deadly and usually gives no warning. Getting stuck in a snow drift and having to leave the car running for heat could allow carbon monoxide to seep into the car especially if the car is resting on snow with no space under it.

  • Fuel and air filters - replace and keep water out of the system by using de-icier additives and maintaining a full tank of gas to prevent moisture from forming and settling in the bottom of the tank, maybe even freezing preventing gas flow to the engine.

  • Heater and defroster - ensure they work properly. (Get the car warmed up with heater on to get the proper level of antifreeze into the heater core and hoses preventing them from freezing).

  • Heater Plugs — in extreme cold conditions install an engine block, heater plug especially if the car or truck is outdoors or even in an uninsulated garage.

  • Lights and flashing hazard lights - check for serviceability.

  • Oil- check for level and weight. Heavier oils congeal more at low temperatures and do not lubricate as well. Check your automobile manuals for recommended oil viscosity.

  • Thermostat - ensure it works properly.

  • Windshield wiper equipment - repair any problems and maintain proper washer fluid level.

  • Radiator shield — have cardboard of suitable size to block too much air entering the radiator so the heater will get warmer. (Useful trick in climates where temperatures fall below 10o F.

  • Install good winter tires--Make sure the tires have adequate tread. All-weather radials are usually adequate for most winter conditions. However, some jurisdictions require that to drive on their roads, vehicles must be equipped with chains or snow tires with studs. Some areas today don’t want people to use studded tires because too many of them on the road damages the highway surface over time.

  • Maintain at least a half tank of gas during the winter season.

  • Place a winter emergency kit in each car that includes:

      • A shovel
      • Windshield scraper and small broom
      • Flashlight
      • Battery powered radio
      • Extra batteries
      • Water in an expandable container
      • Snack food
      • Matches
      • Extra hats, socks and mittens
      • First aid kit with pocket knife
      • Necessary medications
      • Blanket(s)
      • Tow chain or rope
      • Road salt and sand
      • Battery booster cables—heavy voltage class and know how to hook them up properly
      • Emergency flares
      • Fluorescent distress flag
      • Basic tools to get access to battery covers, etc.

    Dress for the Weather

    • Wear several layers of loose fitting, light weight, and warm clothing rather than one layer of heavy clothing. The outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent. Wool socks are preferential.

    • Wear mittens, which are warmer than gloves or at least fur lined gloves.

    • Wear a hat with protection for ears.

    • Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs and nose.

    • Wear waterproof, insulated boots to keep your feet warm and dry and maintain your footing on ice and snow.

    Surviving Winter Storm Disasters by Proper Actions

    If You Are Indoors

    • Listen to your radio, television, or NOAA Weather Radio or website for weather reports and emergency information.

    • Eat regularly and drink ample fluids, but avoid caffeine and alcohol.

    • Conserve fuel, if necessary, by keeping your residence cooler than normal. Temporarily close off heat to some rooms where water is not present.

    • 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).

    • Maintain ventilation when using kerosene heaters to avoid build-up of toxic fumes. Refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet from flammable objects.

    If You Are Outdoors

    • Avoid overexertion. Overexertion can bring on a heart attack—a major cause of death in the winter.

    • Temporary Shelter. If unable to call for help, leave your temporary shelter when it seems safe to do so and visibility and temperature will allow it. If the snow is too deep it may prove too exhausting to travel far—know your limitations.

    • Cover your mouth. Protect your lungs from extremely cold air by covering your mouth when outdoors. Try not to speak unless absolutely necessary.

    • Keep dry. Change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat. Wet clothing loses all of its insulating value and transmits heat rapidly.

    • Watch for signs of frostbite. These 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, get medical help immediately.

    • If food and water are available — keep hydrated and nourished to maintain energy level to avoid hypothermia.

    • Watch for signs of hypothermia. These include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion.

    • If symptoms of hypothermia are detected:

      • Get the victim to a warm location

      • Remove wet clothing

      • Put the person in dry clothing and wrap their entire body in a blanket

      • Warm the center of the body first

      • Give warm, non-alcoholic or non-caffeinated beverages if the victim is conscious

      • Get medical help as soon as possible.

    If You Are Driving

    • Drive only if it is absolutely necessary. If you must drive, consider the following:

    • Travel in the day--use your headlights, don’t travel alone, and keep others informed of your schedule.

    • Stay on main roads avoid back road shortcuts.

    • If a blizzard traps you in the car:

    • Pull off the highway. Turn on hazard lights and hang a distress flag from the radio antenna or window but be careful not to drain your car’s battery.

    • Remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. Do not set out on foot unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. Be careful; distances are distorted by blowing snow. A building may seem close, but be too far to walk to in deep snow.

Actions to Take After Surviving a Winter Storm Disaster

If You Are Indoors

  • Continue to listen to your radio, television, or NOAA Weather Radio or website for weather reports and emergency information for storm continuance, advisories, and impacts to area.

  • Check your home and property for damage—such as broken water lines, power lines, broken trees, and leaks allowing in snow or water. Repair before the next storm arrives if possible.

  • Work to restore operational state of residence.

  • Retool for food and fuel—should another storm be coming.

  • Check on neighbors—give aid to anyone requiring help as soon as possible.

If You Are Outdoors

  • Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow. Overexertion can bring on a heart attack—a major cause of death in the winter. If you must shovel snow, stretch before going outside.

  • Cover your mouth. Protect your lungs from extremely cold air by covering your mouth when outdoors. Try not to speak unless absolutely necessary.

  • Keep dry. Change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat. Wet clothing loses all of its insulating value and transmits heat rapidly.

  • Watch for signs of frostbite. These 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, get medical help immediately.

  • Watch for signs of hypothermia. These include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion.

  • If symptoms of hypothermia are detected:

    • Get the victim to a warm location

    • Remove wet clothing

    • Put the person in dry clothing and wrap their entire body in a blanket

    • Warm the center of the body first

    • Give warm, non-alcoholic or non-caffeinated beverages if the victim is conscious

    • Get medical help as soon as possible.

If You Were/Are Driving

  • Resume driving only if it is absolutely necessary and possible to do so. If you must drive, consider the following:

  • Travel in the day if at all possible--Use your headlights. Don’t travel alone and keep others informed of your schedule.

  • Stay on main roads--avoid back road shortcuts.

  • Make sure you have plenty of gas and you have appropriate tires or chains to travel safely. (4 wheel drives are handy if you have one)

  • If a blizzard trapped you in your car:

    • If possible to resume your travel safely: Clear windshield and all windows and turn on headlights.

    • If the snowstorm caught you by surprise, and you didn’t have a chance to “chain up” do so as soon as you can get onto a suitable surface to safely allow you to do this before traveling on.

    • If the highway has too much snow: You may have to wait until snowplows clear the road enough to be passable. On major highways that shouldn’t be too long.

    • If unable to move yourself, remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. Do not set out on foot unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. Be careful; distances are distorted by blowing snow. A building may seem close, but be too far to walk to in deep snow.

    • Continue to 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. This will protect you from possible carbon monoxide poisoning.

    • Exercise to maintain body heat, but avoid overexertion. In extreme cold, use road maps, seat covers, and floor mats for insulation. Huddle with 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.

    • Be careful not to waste battery power. Balance electrical energy needs - the use of lights, heat, and radio - with supply.

    • Turn on the inside light at night so work crews or rescuers can see you.

    • Inspect your ground signs for help to make sure they are not covered over with snow. (A small mirror would be most useful for aerial surveillance.

Additional Resources for Surviving Winter Storm Disasters

If a winter storm is possible in your area, tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for more information. If you have access to the internet, go to NOAA’s website at: http://www.weather.gov/

You can plug in your zip code of your town’s GPS coordinates and get 7 day/night forecasts plus satellite images of clouds, radar maps, temperature zones, and a host of local information.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE IN TERMINOLOGY.

Winter Storm Watch

Winter storm conditions are possible in the next 2 to 5 days.

Winter Weather Advisory

Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. When caution is used, these situations should not be life threatening.

Winter Storm Watch

Winter storm conditions are possible within the next 36 to 48 hours. People in a watch area should review their winter storm plans and stay informed about weather conditions.

Winter Storm Warning

Life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours. People in a warning area should take precautions immediately.

Historical Notes on Surviving Winter Storm Disasters:

A Wyoming Chinook blizzard took me and my family by surprise in 1972. The speed at which it developed was less than 3 hours from the first snowflake until we were high-centered and stranded about a ½ mile from our home. And, although I could hardly see in the blinding snow I knew where our home was and walking with my back to the snow and wind, I was able to walk for help. The storm stayed on for a week preventing us from even venturing outside. The interstate and highways had traffic and 18 wheelers stranded for miles in all directions.

Even though we were all raised in Wyoming, that experience did it for us. Next spring we headed to Arizona on the first thaw.

Within a few years, I forgot why I left Wyoming and returned to start a family business. That turned out to be the coldest, most miserable winter I had ever experienced in Wyoming! For one solid month, the high for the day was zero often with a bitter wind of 20 mph. The mornings for that month started out at 35 below zero! By the end of that month ,having to work out in these elements, I came to my senses, regained my memory, and as soon as the roads were passable towards the warm south, I returned to Arizona, never to venture north to live again!

Credits:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): http://www.fema.gov/

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American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/

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