Editor’s Note: This is a revised and updated version for 2019.
We each recall our excitement when, as children, snow was predicted and the thought of school closings made us giddy. We anxiously waited for the next morning to take a look out of our bedroom windows to confirm that we’d be sledding, skiing, making snow forts and having snowball battles instead of taking that dreaded science test.
As adults, we may have a different perspective as we think about hazardous travel, flight cancellations, damaging winds, frozen pipes, shoveling snow and power outages.
Blizzards, nor’easters or bomb cyclones, whatever the name designation, these storms can be killers. Before we get into the “Snow Emergency Tips”, let’s define the difference between a blizzard, a nor’easter, and a cyclone bomb.
As you’ll see the definitions can overlap. All are considered “snowstorms”. All can be dangerous, especially for the unprepared.
BLIZZARD: The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a storm which contains large amounts of snow OR blowing snow, with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 mile for an extended period of time (at least 3 hours).
NOR’EASTER: A Nor’easter is a storm along the East Coast of North America, so called because the winds over the coastal area are typically from the northeast. These storms may occur at any time of year but are most frequent and most violent between September and April.
BOMB CYCLONE: A bomb cyclone, or more specifically just a “bomb” in terms of weather, is a “rapid intensification of a cyclone with surface pressure expected to fall by at least 24 millibars in 24 [hours],” per the National Weather Service. When the pressure drops this quickly as measured in millibars, it is considered a bomb.
When a storm is a bomb, it doesn’t necessarily mean heavy snow will result inland. But it does create high winds near the center of the storm which is far offshore. The winds there are so high that hurricane-force winds are expected. If the storm is massive in terms of area covered not all of the areas may have the fierce winds.
If the area where you live has an approaching snowstorm in any of its forms, the local news and weather are probably keeping everyone informed of the timeline and even adding suggestions as to how to avoid or prepare for the hazards that come with severe weather events. These should be taken seriously. Let’s look at eight things to consider before severe weather arrives.
Top 8 Snowstorm Emergency Tips and a Few Observations
1. Traveling in a blizzard is just not a good idea
If you are on the road during a blizzard look for a hotel or motel nearby and stay off the road until driving conditions are safe again. Don’t get yourself in this situation! During a snowstorm, here in Maryland, I have been stranded for five days and six nights at the hospital where I worked.
We had to take care of patients with only the nurses and doctors who became stranded there as well. Relief personnel could not get to us. No food trucks could get in. We made do with what we had and somehow we made it through. Fortunately we never lost power so we didn’t have to use backup generators.
After that experience the hospital decided to make extended emergency arrangements in case of a repeat five foot snowstorm!
The Red Cross has some emergency equipment including basic emergency and basic first aid kits that are easy to throw into the back of your car for cold or inclement weather conditions.
But you might want to expand and customize it to fit your specific requirements, or create your own entirely to include items for a broader scope of emergencies.https://www.redcrossstore.org/ During the winter months, keeping emergency food and blankets inside your car could be a lifesaver.
2. Power Outages and Road Detours
When the power goes out:
- Call in your power outage to make sure the electric company is aware of your location. Look for the emergency phone number on your electric bill.
- Stay away from downed power lines and do not walk through water or snow where a line is down.
- Turn off furnaces, fans, and lights; unplug computers, televisions and small appliances. Leave one light on so that you know when power is restored.
- Factors affecting how long food will stay frozen if you leave the freezer door shut:
- Amount of food in the freezer. Food in a full freezer will stay frozen twice as long as food in a freezer that is only half full. Keeping containers of ice in a partially filled freezer will help keep other foods in the freezer frozen longer.
- Kind of food. A freezer full of meat will not warm up as fast as a freezer full of baked goods.
- Temperature in the freezer before it stopped. The colder the food, the longer it will stay frozen.
- Amount of freezer insulation. A well-insulated freezer will keep food frozen much longer than one with little insulation.
- Size of the freezer. The larger the freezer, the longer the food will stay frozen, particularly if the freezer is full. (REF. Cheryl F. Driggs, Simply Prepared and Colorado State University Extension Service)
- Do not open the refrigerator or freezer unless absolutely necessary.
It’s good to keep these stats in mind: If you keep refrigerator and freezer closed your contents will generally stay cold or frozen for the times listed below.
- A full chest freezer – 3 to 4 days.
- An upright freezer – 2 to 3 days.
- A refrigerator freezer – 1 to 2 days.
- A closed refrigerator – 4 to 6 hours – longer if you put ice in the refrigerator and that’s easy to do with all of that snow!
We have been known to put a large summer cooler deep in a snow drift filled with various foods and covered inside with snow. So far we have not had problems with critters raiding our grub.
If your freezer is half full, food will remain frozen for half the time it will if the freezer is full. If you have a generator, run the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes every 4 to 5 hours to maintain temperatures below 40 degrees F. Run the freezer for 30-60 minutes twice a day to keep food frozen.
Use open flames carefully and safely for heating, cooking and light. Avoid letting children use open flames such as candles. The Fire Department may not be able to easily respond to a fire during any kind of large snow event.
Child-safe equipment includes battery powered flashlights, hand crank flashlights, light sticks and solar lights.
Safe indoor cooking:
- Canned heat stove (such as Sterno)
- Portable butane stove
- Wood burning fireplace
- Wood burning stove
Do not use charcoal, gas grills or camp stoves indoors.
Safe indoor heating:
- Wood burning stove
- Indoor propane space heater
- Indoor kerosene space heater
Conserve heat by blocking or covering leaky doors and windows and closing doors to rooms that do not need to be used. Use sunlight for passive solar heating during the day. Dress in layers. Centralize activities to one or two rooms. You can use quilts, blankets or tarps to isolate these rooms. Stay warm at night by sharing beds or sleeping bags or by sleeping in a pop-up tent inside the house.
One of my very best memories of childhood is the blizzard when power was out for 5 days and the whole family slept in the living room, cooked in the fireplace hobo meals, popcorn, scrambled eggs, foil wrapped potatoes made pallets on the floor for the kids while daddy slept in a chair near the fire, for safety reasons, and mother slept on the sofa.
At night we sang and told stories while the firelight flickered on the ceiling. The difference in temperature between our cozy living room and the freezing dining room on the other side of the quilts was startling.
- Priorities: The electric companies have priorities set for restoring electrical service. The first priority is to facilities important to safety, health and public welfare such as hospitals, water treatment plants, fire stations and other public service facilities. Next, are those power grids that will restore power to the largest number of customers in the shortest amount of time. The more people affected by an outage, the greater the likelihood of getting power restored relatively quickly.
- Trackers: Some utility companies across the country have an outage tracker that reports the number of customers affected by an outage and gives the estimated restoration time for each outage. You can inquire to your local power company to see if they offer that service. Having a general idea of when power will return will help you in making choices for your family’s safety and comfort.
Arctic temperatures, icy winds and heavy wet snows are a perfect recipe to create downed power lines and road blocking debris, causing power outages.
Do we have everything we need to face this kind of emergency, including clean drinking water, alternative heat, battery-powered light sources, matches or lighters, flashlights, a battery-operated radio to keep track of the storm and any directives that may come through the EBS (Emergency Broadcasting System ) emergency food supplies and extra blankets for every family member?
Think about where you’ll put candles to keep them safe. To reduce the risk of fire, whenever possible, use battery-powered emergency lights. Have plenty of food staples that need no cooking but also alternative cooking sources if possible. If your water supply depends on an electric pump, as most supplies do, bottled water may be a good idea. Do you have emergency medical supplies and needed medications?
Blizzards can slow emergency vehicles and disrupt city and county services. So make sure to have fire extinguishers placed strategically in your home and that everyone there knows where they are located and how to use them. Trash services may be halted until trucks can access your area so have plenty of heavy duty trash bags and trash cans on hand.
If you keep your trash can in an outbuilding or other place away from your house you may want to consider bringing it closer to your backdoor before the storm begins, for easier access.
If you have alternative heating sources, such as fireplaces, wood or coal burning stoves, or space heaters, make sure they are clean and in safe working order.
Snow can be so heavy during a blizzard that it causes whiteouts. Once the precipitation has started, consider it too late to run to the store to pick up anything. After all, the term “prepper” presupposes we have thought these possibilities through and have actually prepared ourselves.
Even if we hear a heavy snow is on its way it may be too late to stock up. But those reading this article have everything they need already, right? We don’t want to see this sight below when we enter our local grocery market.
We all know that empty shelves can happen quickly when a storm is predicted. Even if we are still working on getting our year’s supply of food storage, we need to make sure to have enough for our family, and ways to prepare it, to last for 3 months.
We all need to make that a priority in 2018 Snowstorms are relatively short-lived compared to other emergency events which could be longer-lasting and more severe in their consequences, like epidemics, terrorist attacks, quarantines, natural disasters, monetary collapse bringing on rising global food prices, war etc. We can move on our prep goals as our finances allow. The important thing is to keep moving….keep prepping.
3. Being Stranded in Your Vehicle
Everyone should carry a winter survival kit in their car; it could save your life.
List of what to include in your survival kit:
- a shovel
- windshield scraper and small broom
- flashlight with extra batteries
- battery powered radio
- snack food including energy bars
- matches and small candles
- extra hats, socks and mittens
- First aid kit with pocket knife
- Necessary medications
- Blankets, sleeping bag or we have a couple of BIVY’s. They are small enough to fit into the glove box.
- tow chain or rope
- road salt, sand, or cat litter for traction
- booster cables
- emergency flares and reflectors
- fluorescent distress flag and whistle to attract attention
- Cell phone adapter to plug into lighter
It may seem okay to leave the engine running to keep warm, but it isn’t. There is a danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Snow can block your exhaust pipe and fill the car with deadly fumes. Keeping one window open just a bit will help avoid this.Store these in your car and not in the trunk in case the trunk gets frozen closed or unless you have inside access to your trunk.
If you keep the engine running you may run out of gas before the storm is over as well. Make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked, only then should you run the engine and heater a short time until the car gets warm then turn it off again; all the while leaving a window cracked a few inches.
4. Check the condition of your snow blower, shovels and snow brooms.
It’s a good idea to do this in the late autumn before the snow storms begin. You may also want to cover the windows and spaces around the doors to keep drafts at a minimum in the event the heat shuts off. Big box stores have an array of products that make it easy to take care of those draughty doors and window.
They are inexpensive and anyone can install them. There are even products that eliminate draughts around wall electrical outlets….again, available from your local hardware and big box stores.
5. Emergency Generators
If you live in an area where your power shuts down often you might want to consider getting a generator. Generators provide backup power when a blackout occurs, preventing the grid from dispersing electricity to your home as it normally would.
There are two different forms of power generators: portable and standby. Both forms of generators provide benefits that will save money in the long run and may even save your life if you are without power in a critical situation. The elderly, chronically ill and babies are most vulnerable.
Powered by liquid propane fuel or natural gas, residential backup generators offer homeowners peace of mind during unexpected power blackouts by providing a continuous flow of power. They allow homeowners to run appliances such as air conditioners, sump pumps, refrigerators, heaters, washers/dryers, and lights when power is down.
Make sure it is charged and easy to find. If you don’t have emergency numbers stored now is the time to add them to your phone’s memory for instant access when you need them. Even if the phone and power lines go out you can get the word out that you are stranded and need help.
Have a backup charger that doesn’t need electrical power like The PocketSocket. This device is about as simple as personal power generators come. Their website says, “The charger features a standard 12v outlet, into which you can plug any device through a USB charger or AC converter.
Once jacked in, you just crank away at the handle, and watch as your battery slowly climbs up the bar and out of the red. Though the actual rate of power does vary depending on the device you’re trying to keep alive, overall the average boost you can expect is about one minute of cranking to one percent of battery while the device is still on.
Turned off, this statistic boosts a bit more, to about 1.5 percent per one hundred rotations.” So you can see why this device is only used in times of emergency. The price on their website is about $65. But if you and your family are stranded and need help, this could be a lifeline.
Of course you can use your car battery as a power source for charging your phone, if it is available. Solar chargers are also a good option. There are some other good options out there that we’ll address in another article.
7. Animal Care
Animals usually enjoy a good romp in the snow but subzero temperatures, frozen water dishes and lack of adequate shelter can take a toll.
Under these conditions, it is best to bring your companion animals inside and ensure that your horses and any livestock have blankets if appropriate and unimpeded access to shelter, food, and non-frozen water and a shelter where they can be protected from wind, snow, ice, and rain.
Make sure 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).
8. Stay at Home
If at all possible stay at home and inside during a snowstorm of any kind: A blizzard, nor’easter or cyclone bomb. Wait until the snowing and blowing has stopped before going outside. Remember that shoveling snow is strenuous on the heart.
Even if you are in good health limit your shoveling time to short increments just to be safe against heart attack or frostbite. Even if using a snow blower you don’t have to get it all done at once. Take a little break and go inside for a cup of hot chocolate then finish the job.
Be aware of the temperatures before allowing children to play outdoors. Frostbite and snow drifts can present real safety hazards. But once those obstacles are considered and everyone is dressed for the weather, head on out and make some wonderful snowy day memories together.
When our children were young we had a tradition. On the first closure of school for snow, we all headed out with sleds in tow to the big hill and met the other kids in the neighborhood.
After we had rosy cheeks and tingling toes everyone headed to our kitchen for pizza and hot cocoa. Sometimes we had a kitchen full of moms, dads and kids. Today as I watch the snow falling outside my window I have those wonderful memories of other snowy days to treasure.
Take immediate precautions if you hear these words on the news:
- Winter Storm WARNING: Life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours.
- Blizzard WARNING: Sustained winds or frequent gusts of 35 miles per hour or greater, plus considerable falling or blowing snow reducing visibility to less than a quarter mile, expected to prevail for three hours or longer.
Other terms to be aware of:
- WIND CHILL Temperature: How cold people and animals feel when outside. As wind increases, heat is carried away from your body at a faster rate; driving down your body temperature and making you feel much colder. The wind chill temperature is not the actual temperature but rather how wind and cold feel on exposed skin.
- Winter Storm OUTLOOK: Winter storm conditions possible in the next two to five days. Stay tuned to local media for updates.
- Winter Storm WATCH: Winter storm conditions possible within the next 36 to 48 hours. Review your winter storm plans and stay informed about weather conditions.
- Winter Weather ADVISORY: Winter weather conditions expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous but not life-threatening if you are cautious.
Snowstorms, in any form, are serious business. Weather forecasters can only predict so much. Educate yourself and stay on top of the updates in your area. There is no harm in being overly cautious. In all cases where a blizzard is concerned, it truly is better to be safe than sorry.
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