Although extreme cold poses more danger in certain parts of the country, all people at one time or another will live in an area where winter storm precautions must be taken. Winter storms often begin small, but after a short period of time, these storms can evolve into severe blizzards. In addition to heavy and blinding snow, freezing rain, icing, severe winds, and below zero temperatures accompanies winter storms.
Winter storms often cause multiday power and heat outages. During severe storms, below zero temperatures and severe snow shut down entire areas.
The National Weather Service labels these storms as “Deceptive Killers” since many storm-related deaths are not directly linked to the actual storm. Most winter storm deaths result from hypothermia and car accidents. If you live in an area susceptible to severe winter weather, take all the steps necessary to prepare for the worst.
What to Do Before Winter Storms and Extreme Cold
Follow these steps to prepare for extreme winter weather:
- Prior to winter, place these items in an emergency kit:
- Rock salt to melt ice on drive and walkways. Information about environmentally friendly rock salt products is available from the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Snow shovels and ice scrappers.
- A large supply of heating fuel, especially if you live in a rural area. During extreme storms, heating oil lines can be knocked out. If you own a wood burning stone, keep an ample wood supply.
- Heavy blankets and clothes to remain warm.
- Develop a Family Communications Plan. During disasters, families are often separated, so it’s essential that a plan is in place. This way, families can be reunited during winter storm emergencies.
- Follow NOAA Weather Radio and local TV broadcasts for news updates from the National Weather Service (NWS). Remain aware about weather changes.
- Limit travel. If you must travel, do not leave home without an emergency kit.
- Keep small pets inside during severe winter storms. Place horses and livestock inside shelters with an adequate water supply that won’t freeze.
Winterize Your Vehicle Inspect the following in your vehicle prior to the onset of severe winter weather:
- Antifreeze levels – make sure they are high enough to prevent freezing.
- Battery and ignition system – Clean battery terminals and replace old batteries.
- Brakes – Check the brake fluid level and test for excessive wear.
- Exhaust system – Check for cracked pipes and exhaust leaks and immediately receive repairs if needed. Carbon monoxide is odorless and typically deadly.
- Fuel and air filters – Replace worn air filters and ensure gas tanks are always full since fuel lines can freeze in near empty tanks.
- Heater and defroster – Make sure the heater and defroster function properly.
- Lights and flashing hazard lights – Make sure all lights function properly.
- Oil – Check oil weight and level. Heavier oils thicken when it’s really cold and lubricate poorly.
- Thermostat – Make sure it’s functioning properly.
- Windshield wiper equipment – Ensure the washer fluid container is full and replace worn windshield wipers.
- Install good winter tires – Replace tires with poor tread. All-weather radials are sufficient for most areas that experience extreme winter weather. Ensure you have tire chains since some roads can only be driven on with chains or studded tires following heavy snowfall.
Update the emergency kits in your vehicles with:
- Windshield scraper and small broom
- Battery powered radio
- Extra batteries
- snack food
- First aid kit with pocket knife
- Additional mittens, socks, and hats
- Heavy blanket(s)
- Necessary medications
Winterize Your Home
- Conserve energy by installing weather stripping in windows and doors, placing plastic over windows, and purchasing storm windows.
- Properly winterize barns and animal shelters. Fix leaky roofs, remove overhanging braches, and clean rain gutters.
- Inspect and clean chimneys and heating stoves at least once a year.
- Properly insulate pipes with plastic or newspapers and turn faucets to a slow drizzle during extremely cold weather. This eliminates freezing pipe risks.
- Ensure fuel-burning stoves vent properly.
- Store fire extinguishers in the house, and teach children how to operate them. Since people typically use space heaters and other heating devices during extreme cold, fire risks increase.
- Know how to turn off the water valve since water pipes can break during extreme cold.
- Install storm windows or place plastic over windows to insulate your home from cold air.
- Consult with a contractor to inspect your roof to determine whether it drains properly and can sustain heavy snowfall.
What to Do During Winter Storms and Extreme Cold
- Remain inside during heavy storms.
- Be cautious while walking on icy sidewalks and driveways.
- Pace yourself while shoveling snow. Many people suffer heart attacks while shoveling snow. Stretch prior to shoveling any snow and stop if you feel chest pains.
- Remain dry. If your clothes get wet, change them to conserve body heat. Wet clothing provides little or no insulation and rapidly transmits body heat.
- Identify frostbite risks. If fingers, ears, toes, or your nose turn white and lose feeling, seek medical attention immediately.
- Identify signs of hypothermia. Watch for exhaustion, drowsiness, slurred speech, disorientation, memory loss, and excessive shivering. If you recognize signs of hypothermia, relocate to a warm area, take off wet clothes, warm the middle of the body, and slowly consume non-alcoholic drinks. Seek medical attention at once.
- Only drive when necessary. If traveling is necessary, travel with a companion during the day. Notify others of your travel plans and travel on main roads.
- Notify others of your expected arrival time, planned route, and emergency contact information. If you get stranded, family members or friends can inform rescue personnel of your intended route.
- When pipes freeze, remove pipe insulation and wrap them in rags. Pour warm water on pipes and open every faucet.
- Prevent toxic fume buildup while using kerosene heaters by properly ventilating your house. Always refuel these heaters outdoors 3 or more feet from flammable objects.
- Save as much fuel as possible during the winter by keeping the thermostat at a comfortable but low temperature. If possible, close vents in unoccupied rooms.
- If you plan to vacate your house for weeks or months at a time during winter, leave the thermostat at 55ºF or higher.
Wear Appropriate Clothing
- If it’s necessary to go outdoors, wear several layers of lightweight clothing instead of a single heavy layer of clothes. Wear outer garments that are water resistant and tightly woven.
- Wear mittens rather than gloves since they’re warmer.
- Wear a knit hat since it reduces body heat loss.
- Protect your lungs by placing a scarf over your mouth.
If You Become Stranded in Your Vehicle When trapped in a car during a blizzard:
- Get off the highway. Switch on hazard lights and place a distress flag from a window or other visible area.
- Stay in the car since emergency responders will more than likely find you there. Do not leave your vehicle unless a nearby building is visible. Be cautious during snow storms since snow can cause disorientation. Buildings may appear close when in reality they’re at unsafe walking distances.
- Keep the engine running for at least 10 minutes every hour to remain warm. Keep a window open slightly for ventilation and occasionally remove exhaust pipe snow to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Exercise to stay warm, but do not overstrain yourself. During extreme cold, insulate the car with floor maps, seat covers, and maps. Place a coat over yourself like a blanket and sit closely with other passengers.
- If stranded with another person, take turns sleeping, so one individual can watch out for rescue personnel.
- Eat frequently and drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration; however, refrain from drinking alcohol and caffeine.
- Conserve battery power. Conserving power will ensure that you’ll have radio access and light if needed.
- If stranded in an isolated region, use an ice scraper or other object to spell SOS or HELP in the snow. This will help rescue workers or planes flying overhead spot your location.
Once blizzards end, vacate the vehicle and begin moving on foot if you’ve been stranded for some time.
What to Do After Winter Storms and Extreme Cold
Go to a designated public shelter if your home loses power or heat during periods of extreme cold. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345).
Continue to protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia by wearing warm, loose-fitting, lightweight clothing in several layers. Stay indoors, if possible.
Last update 2020-10-23. Price and product availability may change.