Each year, dozens of Americans die due to exposure to cold. Add to that number vehicle accidents and fatalities, fires due to dangerous use of heaters and other winter weather fatalities and you have a significant threat.
- Threats, such as hypothermia and frostbite, can lead to loss of fingers and toes or cause permanent kidney, pancreas and liver injury and even death. You must prepare properly to avoid these extreme dangers. You also need to know what to do if you see symptoms of these threats.
- A major winter storm can last for several days and be accompanied by high winds, freezing rain or sleet, heavy snowfall and cold temperatures.
- People can become trapped at home or in a car, without utilities or other assistance.
- Attempting to walk for help in a winter storm can be a deadly decision.
- The aftermath of a winter storm can have an impact on a community or region for days, weeks or even months.
- Extremely cold temperatures, heavy snow and coastal flooding can cause hazardous conditions and hidden problems.
Heavy snow can immobilize a region and paralyze a city, stranding commuters, closing airports, stopping the flow of supplies, and disrupting emergency and medical services. Accumulations of snow can cause roofs to collapse and knock down trees and power lines. Homes and farms may be isolated for days and unprotected livestock may be lost. In the mountains, heavy snow can lead to avalanches. The cost of snow removal, repairing damages, and the loss of business can have severe economic impacts on cities and towns.
Heavy accumulations of ice can bring down trees and topple utility poles and communication towers. Ice can disrupt communications and power for days while utility companies repair extensive damage. Even small accumulations of ice can be extremely dangerous to motorists and pedestrians. Bridges and overpasses are particularly dangerous because they freeze before other surfaces.
Exposure to cold can cause frostbite or hypothermia and become life-threatening. Infants and elderly people are most susceptible. What constitutes extreme cold varies in different parts of the country. In the South, near-freezing temperatures are considered extreme cold. Freezing temperatures can cause severe damage to citrus fruit crops and other vegetation. Pipes may freeze and burst in homes that are poorly insulated or without heat. In the North, extreme cold means temperatures well below zero.
Wind chill is not the actual temperature but rather how wind and cold feel on exposed skin. As the wind increases, heat is carried away from the body at an accelerated rate, driving down the body temperature. Animals are also affected by wind chill; however, cars, plants and other objects are not.
Frostbite is damage to body tissue caused by extreme cold. A wind chill of -20° Fahrenheit (F) will cause frostbite in just 30 minutes. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in extremities, such as fingers, toes, ear lobes or the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately! If you must wait for help, slowly rewarm affected areas. However, if the person is also showing signs of hypothermia, warm the body core before the extremities.
Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95°F. It can kill. For those who survive, there are likely to be lasting kidney, liver and pancreas problems. Warning signs include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion. Take the person's temperature. If below 95°F, seek medical care immediately!
If medical care is not available, warm the person slowly, starting with the body core. Warming the arms and legs first drives cold blood toward the heart and can lead to heart failure. If necessary, use your body heat to help. Get the person into dry clothing and wrap in a warm blanket covering the head and neck. Do not give the person alcohol, drugs, coffee or any hot beverage or food. Warm broth is the first food to offer.
At Home and Work
Primary concerns are loss of heat, power and telephone service and a shortage of supplies if storm conditions continue for more than a day. Have available:
- Flashlight and extra batteries.
- Battery-powered NOAA weather radio and portable radio to receive emergency information. These may be your only links to the outside.
- Extra food and water. Have high energy food, such as dried fruit, nuts and granola bars, and food requiring no cooking or refrigeration.
- Extra medicine and baby items.
- First-aid supplies.
- Heating fuel. Refuel before you are empty. Fuel carriers may not reach you for days after a winter storm.
- Emergency heat source: fireplace, wood stove, space heater.
- Use properly to prevent a fire.
- Ventilate properly.
- Fire extinguisher, smoke alarm.
- Test smoke alarms once a month to ensure they work properly.
- Make sure pets have plenty of food, water and shelter.
Plan your travel and check the latest weather reports to avoid the storm! Fully check and winterize your vehicle before the winter season begins.
Carry a winter storm survival kit:
- Mobile phone, charger, batteries
- Blankets/sleeping bags
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- First-aid kit
- High-calorie, non-perishable food
- Extra clothing to keep dry
- Large empty can to use as emergency toilet; tissues and paper towels for sanitary purposes
- Small can and waterproof matches to melt snow for drinking water
- Sack of sand or cat litter for traction
- Windshield scraper and brush
- Tool kit
- Tow rope
- Battery booster cables
- Water container
- Compass and road maps.
Keep your gas tank near full to avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines. Whenever possible, avoid traveling alone. Always let someone know your timetable and primary and alternate routes.
Dress for the Season
Wear loose, lightweight, warm clothes in layers. Trapped air insulates. Remove layers to
avoid perspiration and subsequent chill. Outer garments should be tightly
woven, water repellent and hooded. Wear a hat. Half your body heat loss can be from the head. Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from extreme cold. Mittens
snug at the wrist are better than gloves. Try to stay dry.
When Caught in a Winter Storm
- Try to stay dry.
- Cover all exposed body parts.
- Build a lean-to, windbreak or snow cave for protection from the wind.
- Build a fire for heat and to attract attention.
- Place rocks around the fire to absorb and reflect heat.
Melt snow for drinking water:
- Eating snow will lower your body temperature. Snow should be melted for drinking water.
In A Vehicle
Stay in vehicle:
- You will become quickly disoriented in wind-driven snow and cold.
- Run the motor about 10 minutes each hour for heat.
- Open the window a little for fresh air to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked.
Be visible to rescuers:
- Turn on the dome light at night when running the engine.
- Tie a colored cloth, preferably red, to your antenna or door.
- After snow stops falling, raise the hood to indicate you need help.
- From time to time, move arms, legs, fingers and toes vigorously to keep blood circulating and to keep warm.
- When using alternate heat from a fireplace, wood stove, space heater, etc., use fire safeguards and properly ventilate.
- Close off unneeded rooms.
- Stuff towels or rags in cracks under doors.
- Cover windows at night.
- Eat and drink. Food provides the body with energy for producing its own heat. Keep the body replenished with fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Wear layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing. Remove layers to avoid overheating, perspiration and subsequent chill.
Avoid overexertion, such as shoveling heavy snow, pushing a car 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. Take Red Cross Cardiopulminary Rescue (CPR) and Automated External Defibrillator (AED) training so you can respond quickly to an emergency.
This information is courtesy of the National Weather Service.