Winter Storms

Winter storms may include strong winds, heavy snow, sleet, freezing rain, ice and/or extreme cold. Storms often knock out power, down trees, and make roads impassable for days. The weight of snow and ice can collapse buildings. Winds descending off mountains can reach 100 miles per hour. Ice jams in rivers can lead to flooding, and snow in the mountains can become an avalanche.

Winter storms are called deceptive killers because most deaths are only indirectly related to the storm. Nearly seventy percent of all deaths from ice and snow are due to traffic accidents on icy roads. The remainder are from exposure of people caught out in the storm, hypothermia, dehydration, and heart attacks from over exertion.

What constitutes extreme cold varies in different areas of the country. In southern and coastal areas, both the people and the buildings are unused to winter weather. Extreme cold may mean temperatures just below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) because it damages crops, bursts pipes, brings down power lines and threatens people living in houses with inadequate heat. In the north and Midwest, winter storms are expected and few would consider it extreme cold unless the temperatures are below zero.

Alcohol and caffeine worsen
hypothermia and dehydration

In The House

The safest place to be in a winter storm is in a building. If you live in an area that has severe winters, your house should be prepared. Start with an outdoor thermometer that is easily readable from inside the house. As winter approaches, install storm windows or staple over windows with strong plastic sheeting to improve insulation. Windows should also have heavy draperies that can keep out the cold. Insulate outside walls, attics and crawl spaces. Weather strip all doors. Wrap or insulate water pipes to prevent freezing. Remove and store hoses and cover the hose nipples until spring. Make sure your furnace is working properly and check all fireplaces or other secondary heating systems. As a bonus, all this will save you money on your heating bills.

As a winter storm approaches, there are additional preparations. Make sure that you have food and water for a week because it may be difficult to get out for several days after the storm passes. Fill your car with gas and check your emergency supplies. If you live in an area where winter storms are unusual, you may need to bring in hoses, wrap pipes and cover windows to improve your insulation.

During the storm, stay inside. Even if you lose power and heat, you will be safer in the house than in a car. Wear several layers of loose fitting, light weight, warm clothing so you can adjust to the temperature in the house. Wear socks and shoes. Get out mittens and a hat that covers your ears to use if you need them. Eat regularly and drink plenty of water, broth or juice to avoid dehydration. Avoid alcohol and caffeine since they make hypothermia and dehydration worse.

Reduce the temperature in the house to conserve fuel: 65F in the day and 55F at night. There will be very high demand on the natural gas and electricity distribution systems. If you use oil, your tank could run dry before you can get it refilled.

When using alternative heat from a fireplace, wood stove or space heater, follow all fire safety rules and ventilate properly to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep a fire extinguisher or bucket of water near the fire in case it gets out of control.

Open cabinet doors under sinks to keep the pipes warm and let all faucets drip a little to keep the water lines from freezing. If a pipe freezes, use a hair dryer to thaw it out gently, never a torch. Heat only the areas of your house that you are using.

If you lose heat, move everyone into one room to conserve  what heat you can. Use an interior room with few doors or windows. A bedroom or dining room is usually a good choice. Seal off drafts by putting blankets over windows and towels under doors. Walk around or exercise to generate body heat and maintain circulation. Sleep in shifts. At least one person should stay awake at all times to make sure the others are alright. Watch for signs of hypothermia such as slurred speech, disorientation, or uncontrollable shivering. Let the authorities know that you are in trouble so they can get to you as quickly as possible after the storm.

Try to make sure your car will continue to work if you need it. Winterize your car in the fall. Keep the battery and ignition system in top condition, and keep the battery terminals clean. In long periods of severe cold, cars will be hard to start in the morning. If you don’t have an engine warmer, you can keep the car warm the same way you keep a person warm. Every few hours, start the car and run it until it is warm. Make sure the garage door is open to avoid carbon monoxide. When the car is warm, turn it off and close the garage. Put blankets over the hood and radiator. This holds in the engine heat and keeps the car warm enough to restart.

In The Car

Use public transportation instead of your car, if public transportation is available. If you must drive in a winter storm, be very well prepared. If the car is parked outside, clean the ice and snow off the hood, roof, trunk and lights, as well as the windows. Warm up the car outside, never in the garage. Plan your route carefully, stay on main roads and plan alternatives if some roads are impassable. Call ahead so you are expected. Give your route and estimated time of arrival.

If possible, travel with at least two people in the car and travel only in daylight. If you have a choice of vehicles, take the one that is most brightly colored. Drive for the road conditions: do not speed; be cautious about passing; and remember that patches of ice can be virtually invisible. Make sure the car is fit for the road. In bad conditions, you should have snow tires or chains. Keep the car at least half full of gasoline and top it off before the storm hits. This reduces the chance of icing in the fuel line. Wear polarized sunglasses to reduce glare. Carry a cell phone and keep in touch with those at your destination.

Keep emergency supplies in the car all winter long. Along with the usual car emergency kit, you should have supplies for being stranded in the snow. These include several gallons of water, high calorie non-perishable foods, blankets, a change of clothes for keeping dry, a bright colored flag for the antenna or window, sand or cat litter for traction, a shovel, a windshield scraper, and a large coffee can with lid and toilet paper for sanitation.

If you get stuck in the snow, turn the steering wheel from side to side to clear away some of the snow. Accelerate slowly and see if you can get the car moving again. If this does not work, use the shovel to dig out the drive wheels and put some sand or litter under them for traction. If neither of these works, you are stuck.

If You Are Stuck On The Road
Stay In The Car

If you have to stop, stay in your vehicle. You will quickly become disoriented in snow and cold. Try to find a place where you are partially protected by an overpass or tree line. Make the car as visible as possible: set out flares or triangles; lift the hood; put a brightly colored cloth or flag on the antenna or window; clear snow off the roof. Leave the overhead light on so you can be seen at night unless this appears to be running down the battery. In remote areas, spread a large cloth or the trunk mat on top of the snow to attract the attention of rescue planes.

Clear the snow away from the exhaust pipe, open the two front windows about 2 inches and run the engine and heater for 10 minutes out of every hour. This is usually enough to keep the occupants warm while conserving fuel and reducing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Listen to the radio, charge the cell phone and turn on the emergency flashers while the motor is running. Roll the windows up just before turning off the engine. If you feel drowsy or nauseated, turn the engine off immediately.

Conserve as much body heat as possible. Wear all the dry clothing you have available. Huddle together if there is more than one person in the car. Use maps and newspapers as added insulation under the blankets. If they are dry, put the floor mats under you on the seat to insulate your back side. Keep your hands and feet inside your clothing and cover your head and ears.

Keep your circulation going and generate body heat by doing isometric exercises. Contract muscles in your arms and legs rhythmically. Clap your hands and move your legs. Sing and dance to the music in your seat. If there are two people in the car, alternate brief periods of sleep. You need to reawaken and exercise periodically.


Don’t go outdoors in a winter storm unless it is absolutely necessary. If you must go out, prepare very carefully. Stretch and warm up before going out. If you are shoveling snow, pushing a car, or walking in deep snow, you are doing heavy exercise. Avoid over exertion and take frequent breaks to warm up. Do not work up a sweat as this can lead to chilling and hypothermia. If you develop chest pain or shortness of breath stop immediately and go inside since these may be signs of a heart attack. Walk carefully. Falling on ice can cause disabling injuries.

If you are caught outside in a snow storm, the first thing to do is find shelter. If you can get to a building or a car, go immediately. If you are too far away from existing shelters, try to build a shelter. Prepare a lean-to, wind-break or even a snow cave for protection from the wind. Build a fire in the open for heat and as a signal to rescuers. If you can place rocks around the fire they will absorb and radiate heat to keep you warmer. Curl up and cover all exposed parts of your body to preserve heat and prevent frostbite of your fingers and toes. Stay as dry as possible. In extreme cold, do not let yourself go to sleep. If you feel drowsy, start exercising. This will wake you up and increase your body heat.

Once the snow storm has passed, do whatever you can to make yourself visible to rescuers. Dig out your car or tent so it shows up against the snow. Get out from under trees. Use a bright cloth as a flag. Stamp out “HELP” or “SOS” in the snow. Write the message with tree limbs or stones or anything that will show up against the snow. Don’t over exert yourself and don’t try to walk out. Let help come to you.