Winter storms are defined differently in various areas of the country, and each
area is equipped differently to deal with the challenges and hazards of severe
winter weather. A snowstorm that would be unremarkable in Buffalo, N.Y., could
bring a city in the southern states to a standstill. Local emergency management
offices, National Weather Service (NWS) offices, and American Red Cross chapters
can provide definitions specific to each area.
• Blizzard describes winds of 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour or more with snow and blowing snow that reduce visibility to less than one-quarter mile (0.4 kilometer) for at least three hours.
• Blowing snow describes wind-driven snow that reduces visibility. Blowing snow may be falling snow and/or snow on the ground that is picked up by the wind.
• Snow squall describes a brief, intense snow shower accompanied by strong, gusty winds. Accumulation from snow squalls can be significant.
• Snow shower describes snow that falls at varying intensities for short durations with little or no accumulation.
Ice forms in
• Sleet is rain that freezes into ice pellets before it reaches the ground. Sleet usually bounces when hitting a surface and does not stick to objects; however, it can accumulate like snow and cause roads and walkways to become hazardous.
• Freezing rain (also known as an ice storm) is rain that falls onto a surface that has a temperature below freezing. The cold surface causes the rain to freeze so the surfaces—trees, utility wires, vehicles, and roads—become glazed with ice. Even small accumulations of ice can cause significant hazards to people—especially pedestrians and motorists—and property.
The NWS encourages people to buy a weather radio
equipped with the Specific Area Message Encoder (SAME) feature. This feature
automatically alerts you when important information about winter weather and
other hazards is issued for your area. Information on NOAA Weather Radio is
available from your local NWS office or at www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr.
Prepared for a Winter Storm
If you live in an area where severe winter weather is possible,
• Install smoke alarms. For new homes, interconnected smoke alarms are required on every level of the home, outside each sleeping area and inside each bedroom. Although this approach is ideal for all homes, as a minimum, existing homes should have smoke alarms on every level and outside each sleeping area. Test and maintain them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (See “’Smoke Alarms”)
• Install carbon monoxide (CO) alarms following the manufacturer’s instructions. It is especially important to have one near sleeping areas. Test and maintain them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (See “Carbon Monoxide Alarms”)
• Get training. Take an American Red Cross first aid course to learn how to treat exposure to the cold, frostbite, and hypothermia.
• Service snow removal equipment before the winter storm season and maintain it in good working order.
• Keep your vehicle’s gas tank full so you can leave right away in an emergency and to keep the fuel line from freezing.
• Keep a supply of non-clumping kitty litter to make walkways and steps less slippery. Kitty litter temporarily improves traction on an icy surface. Rock salt melts ice on walkways, but it can damage vegetation and concrete. You may find other, less damaging, ice-melting products at building supplies stores.
• Keep handy a warm coat, gloves or mittens, hat, water-resistant boots, and extra blankets and warm clothing for each member of the household.
• Make sure your home heating sources are installed according to local codes and permit requirements and are clean and in working order. Many home fires are started by poorly maintained furnaces or stoves, cracked or rusted furnace parts, or chimneys with creosote buildup.
• Be sure all portable and fixed electric space heaters have been certified by an independent testing laboratory. Keep blankets, clothing, curtains, furniture, and anything that could get hot and catch fire at least three feet away from all heat sources. Plug heaters directly into the wall socket rather than using an extension cord and unplug them when they are not in use.
• Use kerosene heaters only if permitted by law in your area. Refuel kerosene heaters outdoors only after they have cooled. Kerosene has a low flash point. If mistakenly dripped on hot surfaces, it can cause fires. Do not substitute gasoline for kerosene in the heater. Make sure the area is ventilated properly. Follow all of the manufacturer’s instructions.
• Have chimneys and wood stoves inspected annually and cleaned if necessary. Chimneys and wood stoves build up creosote, which is the residue left behind by burning wood. Creosote is flammable and needs to be professionally removed periodically. Store ashes in a metal container with a tight-fitting lid.
• Bring your companion animals inside during winter weather.
If you live in an area where severe winter weather is possible, you should:
• Make sure your home is properly insulated. If necessary, insulate the walls and attic to reduce your home's power demands for heat. Caulk and weather-strip doors and windowsills to keep cold air out.
• Install storm windows or cover windows with plastic from the inside to provide an extra layer of insulation to keep cold air out.
• Protect pipes from freezing by:
-Wrapping pipes in insulation or layers of newspaper and then covering them with plastic to keep out moisture.
-Letting faucets drip a little.
• Know how to shut off the main water valve and how to shut off and drain outside faucets. Outside faucets are often controlled by a valve inside the home. Keep a wrench near the valves.
• Install heat tape on water pipes. Put the tape on all exterior water pipes and interior pipes located on outside walls or anywhere else that temperatures could go below freezing. Follow carefully the manufacturer’s instructions for installation.
• If the pipes freeze, remove any insulation or newspaper and wrap the 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 most likely penetrated. A hand-held hair dryer, used with caution to prevent overheating, also works well.
• Consider buying emergency heating equipment, such as a wood- or coal-burning stove or an electric or kerosene heater. If you have a stove, be sure it is properly vented and in good working order and that you dispose of ashes safely. Keep a supply of wood or coal on hand. If you have an electric space heater, either portable or fixed, be sure it is certified by an independent testing laboratory. Plug a heater directly into the wall socket rather than using an extension cord and unplug it when it is not in use. Use a kerosene heater only if permitted by law in your area; check with your local fire department. If you have a kerosene heater, use only the correct fuel for your unit. Properly ventilate the area of use. Refuel the unit outdoors only, and only when the unit is cool. Follow all of the manufacturer's instructions. Keep all heaters at least three feet away from furniture and other flammable objects.
• When using fireplaces, stoves, and space heaters, ventilate properly and guard against fire. Using alternative sources of heat such as these greatly increases your risk for fire and carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.
• Consider storing sufficient heating fuel. Regular fuel sources may be cut off. Be cautious of fire hazards when storing any type of fuel.
• If you have a fireplace, consider keeping a supply of firewood or coal. Be sure the fireplace is properly vented and in good working order and that you dispose of ashes safely.
• Install snow fences in rural areas to reduce drifting snow on roads and paths, which could block access to homes, barns, and animals' feed and water.
• Create a place where your animals can be comfortable in severe winter weather. Bring your companion animals indoors. Horses and livestock should have a shelter where they can be protected from wind, snow, ice, and rain. Grazing animals should have access to a protected supply of food and non-frozen water.
• Be aware of the potential for flooding when snow and ice melt and be sure that your animals have access to high ground that is not impeded by fencing or other barriers. You may not be able to get to them in time to relocate them in the event of flooding.
• Ensure that any outbuildings that house or shelter animals can withstand wind and heavy snow and ice.
• Consider purchasing flood insurance, if you live in a flood-prone area, to cover possible flood damage that may occur during the spring thaw. Homeowners' policies do not cover damage from floods. Ask your insurance agent about the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) if you are at risk. More information on NFIP is available at www.fema.gov/nfip.
• Keep handy a battery-powered radio or television or NOAA Weather Radio with the Specific Area Message Encoder (SAME) feature.
• Contact your local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter for information on designated public shelters in case you lose power or heat.
• Check your Disaster Supplies Kit, and keep it handy.
• Be sure you have ample heating fuel.
• If you have alternative heating sources, such as fireplaces, wood- or coal-burning stoves, or space heaters, be sure they are installed according to local codes and permit requirements and are clean and in working order.
• Check that your fire extinguisher(s) is in good working order, and replace it if necessary. (See “Fire Extinguishers”)
• Bring your companion animals inside and ensure that your horses and livestock have blankets if appropriate and unimpeded access to shelter, food, and nonfrozen water.
• Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or a local radio or television station for updated information.
• Watch for changing weather conditions. Severe weather can happen quickly. Temperatures may drop rapidly, winds may increase, or snow may begin to fall at heavier rates. Even local media may not know moment by moment what is happening in your particular area.
• Move animals to sheltered areas with a supply of non-frozen water. Most animal deaths in winter storms are caused by dehydration.
• Ensure that you have supplies for clean-up for your companion animals, particularly if they are used to eliminating outdoors (large plastic bags, paper towels, and extra cat litter).
• Avoid unnecessary travel. The safest place during a winter storm is indoors. About 70 percent of deaths related to ice and snow occur in automobiles.
• Stay indoors and wear warm clothes. Layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing will keep you warmer than a bulky sweater. If you feel too warm, remove layers to avoid sweating; if you feel chilled, add layers.
• Listen to a local station on battery-powered radio or television or to NOAA Weather Radio for updated emergency information.
• Bring your companion animals inside before the storm begins.
• Eat regularly. Food provides the body with energy for producing its own heat.
• Keep the body replenished with fluids to prevent dehydration. Drink liquids such as warm broth or juice. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine, a stimulant, accelerates the symptoms of hypothermia. Alcohol, such as brandy, is a depressant and hastens the effects of cold on the body. Alcohol also slows circulation and can make you less aware of the effects of cold. 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 (fuel 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 amounts at the same time. Lower the thermostat to 65° F (18° C) during the day and to 55° F (13° C) at night. Close off unused rooms, and stuff towels or rags in cracks under the doors. Cover the windows at night.
• If you must go outside, protect yourself from winter storm hazards:
-Wear layered clothing, mittens or gloves, and a hat. Layered clothing 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 prevent the loss of body heat.• Walk carefully on snowy, icy sidewalks. Slips and falls occur frequently in winter weather, resulting in painful and sometimes disabling injuries.
Mittens are warmer than gloves because your fingers maintain more warmth when they touch each other. Half of your body-heat loss is from your head.
-Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from severely cold air. Avoid taking deep breaths; minimize talking.
-Watch for signs of hypothermia and frostbite. (See “Frostbite and Hypothermia”) -Keep dry. Change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat. Wet clothing loses much of its insulating value and transmits heat 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 chances of muscle injury.
-Avoid overexertion, such as shoveling heavy snow, pushing a vehicle, or walking in deep snow. The strain from the cold and the hard labor may cause a heart attack. Sweating could lead to a chill and hypothermia.
• If you must go out during a winter storm, use public transportation if possible. About 70 percent of winter deaths related to ice and snow occur in automobiles.
• Check on relatives, neighbors, and friends, particularly if they are elderly or if they live alone.
• Have your vehicle winterized before the winter storm season. Keeping your vehicle in good condition will decrease your chance of being stranded in cold weather. Have a mechanic check your battery, antifreeze, wipers and windshield washer fluid, ignition system, thermostat, lights, flashing hazard lights, exhaust system, heater, brakes, defroster, and oil level. If necessary, replace existing oil with winter-grade oil. 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 vehicles on their roads be equipped with chains or snow tires with studs.
• Check your vehicle emergency supplies kit and replenish it if necessary. (See “Emergency Supplies for Your Vehicle”)
• If you will be driving in wintry conditions, in addition to the usual emergency supplies you keep in your vehicle, be sure to keep enough of the following for each person:
-Blankets or sleeping bags.
-Rain gear, extra sets of dry clothing, mittens, socks, and wool hats.
-Newspapers for insulation.
-Plastic bags for sanitation.
-Canned fruit, nuts, and high energy "munchies." (Include a non-electric can opener if necessary.)
Keep in your vehicle:
-A windshield scraper and small broom for ice and snow removal.
-A small sack of sand for generating traction under wheels and a set of tire chains or traction mats.
-Matches in a waterproof container.
-Cards, games, and puzzles.
-A brightly colored (preferably red) cloth to tie to the antenna.
• Keep a cell phone or two-way radio with you when traveling in winter. Make sure the battery is charged.
• If you must be on the road during a winter storm, bring warm broth in a thermos and several bottles of water for each person.
• Keep your vehicle’s gas tank full so you will be ready in case of emergency and to prevent the fuel line from freezing.
• Plan to travel during daylight and, if possible, take at least one other person with you.
• Let someone know your destination, your route, and when you expect to arrive. If your vehicle gets stuck along the way, help can be sent along your predetermined route.
• Before leaving, listen to weather reports for your area and the areas you will be passing through, or call the state highway patrol for the latest road conditions. • Be on the lookout for sleet, freezing rain, freezing drizzle, and dense fog, which can make driving very hazardous.
• Avoid traveling during a winter storm.
• If you must travel and do become stranded, it is better to stay in the vehicle and wait for help. Do not leave the vehicle to search for assistance unless help is visible within 100 yards (91 meters). You can quickly become disoriented and confused in blowing snow.
• If you are stuck in a vehicle:
-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.
-Run the engine occasionally to keep warm. Carbon monoxide can build up inside a standing vehicle while the engine is running, even if the exhaust pipe is clear. Running the heater for 10 minutes every hour generally is enough to keep the occupants warm. Running the engine for only short periods reduces the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and conserves fuel. Turn on the engine for about 10 minutes each hour (or five minutes every half hour). Use the heater while 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 be seen.
-Do light exercises to keep up circulation. Clap your hands and move your arms and legs occasionally. Try not to stay in one position for too long.
-If more than one person is in the vehicle, take turns sleeping. One of the first signs of hypothermia is sleepiness. If you are not awakened periodically to increase body temperature and circulation, you can freeze to death.
-Huddle together for warmth. Use newspapers, maps, and even the removable floor mats for added insulation. Layering items will help trap more body heat.
-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, and drink warm broth to reduce the 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 you unaware of possible dehydration. When people are dehydrated, they are more susceptible to the ill effects of cold and to heart attacks.
-Avoid overexertion. Cold weather puts an added strain on the heart. Unaccustomed exercise, such as shoveling snow or pushing a vehicle, can bring on a heart attack or make other medical conditions worse.
• Keep listening to a local radio or television station or NOAA Weather Radio for updated information and instructions. Access to some parts of the community may be limited or roads may be blocked.
• Help people who require special assistance—infants, elderly people, those without transportation, large families who may need additional help in an emergency situation, people with disabilities, and the people who care for them.
• 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 death during the winter.
• Keep up with local weather forecasts and be prepared when you go outside. Major winter storms are often followed by even colder conditions.
• Check on your animals and ensure that their access to food and water is unimpeded by drifted snow, ice, or other obstacles.
• Sponsor a "Winter Weather Awareness Day" a week or so before winter storm season begins. This is a good way to get emergency management officials and local Red Cross representatives involved.
• Ask your local newspaper or radio or television station to:
-Do a series on the dangers of winter storms and severe cold, with special emphasis on what people should do if they are caught out in the open or in a vehicle.• Inform your community about the different National Weather Service announcements— winter storm outlook, winter storm watch, winter storm warning, blizzard warning, winter weather advisory.
-Highlight the importance of staying informed about local weather conditions.
-Run public service ads about how to protect lives in winter storms and extreme cold. Help the reporters to localize the information by providing them with the local emergency telephone number for the fire, police, and emergency medical services departments (usually 9-1-1) and emergency numbers for the local utilities and hospitals. Also provide business telephone numbers for the local emergency management office and American Red Cross chapter.
• In the fall, present information sessions about safe practices for the coming season of cold weather and winter storms. Include information on alternative heat sources and home insulation.
• Interview local physicians about the dangers of hypothermia and other winter health conditions. Include discussions of exhaustion and heart attacks caused by overexertion.
• Advise people of the dangers of winter driving, and warn them that driving in winter storms can be a risk to their lives. Produce a series of announcements on what people should do if they are stuck in a vehicle during a blizzard.