America is experiencing some of the worst winter weather it has had in four years, affecting millions of people from the Midwest to the East Coast. Hundreds of thousands of families have been without power for up to a week. Ice storms can be devastating, causing enough dangerous conditions to shut down entire cities. An ice storm is categorized by the accumulation of 0.25 inches of freezing rain—just enough to add 500 pounds of extra weight to power lines. Due to the extreme weight of ice, power lines, large trees, tree branches and utility poles can snap, causing blackouts that can last for weeks.
Since road travel can be extremely treacherous during severe winter storms, it is best to prepare and stock up now before old man winter hits. Preparing for a power outage in winter is much like preparing for a power outage in spring or summer. However, deaths related to weather increase in winter, so you need to take extra precaution in preparing to make sure you stay warm and safe during an ice storm.
To stay on top of weather conditions, not only in your local area, but also around the nation—purchase a NOAA-approved (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather alert and emergency radio. NOAA broadcasts continuous updates on a network of radio stations around the country called NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) All Hazards using VHF frequencies from 162.400 to 162.550 MHz, which, you cannot hear on regular AM/FM radio receivers.
Many NOAA-approved radios perform double duty. I recommend a radio that has alternative power sources, such as battery, solar and crank. This way you can charge cell phones, iPads, and other communication devices. A good emergency radio will also have a light built in, such as the Kaito Voyager emergency radio.
Emergency response experts recommend keeping at least three days of food on hand. Food that does not require baking, much preparation or many ingredients is best. Prepackaged, preplanned meals such as MREs or freeze-dried products may be purchased in kits or in separate entrées. These types of meals are a little bit more expensive than building your own long-term food storage; however, they are easier, quicker and more convenient. Military-style MREs are easy, contain much needed calories and nutrients and include their own heater.
The cheaper option is to make your own long-term food storage kit. Non-perishable foods such as rice, beans and oats, along with canned food items are easiest.You will also need an alternative way to heat food such as a barbecue grill, camp stove or MRE-style heater. Do not use charcoal, gas or Stove in a Can indoors. However, any emergency stove that uses Sterno and Sterno-type fuel is safe to use indoors in a well-ventilated area.
When the power goes out, you will not necessarily lose your refrigerated items. Before hitting up your non-perishables, go through the refrigerated and freezer items first. If the power is out for less than two hours, your refrigerated foods will be fine. Just make sure to keep the fridge door closed as much as possible. Keep your ice trays full and have a bag of back-up ice in the freezer all the time. Instead of a bag of ice, you can fill up plastic jugs with water and keep them in the freezer. If your freezer is full, the food inside will stay good for two days. If it is only half-full, the food will be good for 24 hours.
During your time stuck indoors without power, eat at least one hot meal a day. Hot beverages such as hot chocolate, tea and coffee will help keep your body warm, too. There are plenty of foods that help keep you warm, including soups, nuts, beans, whole grains and a large variety of spices.
Food essentials checklist:
Though you may not want to reach for a tall, glass of ice water when it is freezing outside, drinking water and staying hydrated is just as important during winter as it is during the hotter months. In fact, dehydration can set in faster in winter than summer. When we exhale, we are working to humidify the air surrounding us. Because the air in winter is much drier and colder than summer, we work harder to warm that air. It is possible to lose up to two liters of water a day through evaporation simply by breathing. Further, we are less likely to reach for a cool, glass of water to regulate our temperature in the winter. Not to mention that dehydration can actually speed up hypothermia.
Store at least three days of water for each person in your household. The recommended amount is at least one gallon of water per person, per day. You can do this by purchasing jugs of water and cases of individual plastic bottles. Supplement your water supplies with a large water storage container such as WaterBOB or AquaPod. When you receive a winter weather alert from the news or your NOAA weather alert radio, fill your bathtub with water. Though water stored in the tank of the commode and in the hot water heater can be used in a dire emergency—treated first—don’t count on it as a source. Believe it or not, this water can freeze during extreme temperatures.
Remember to drink eight glasses of water each day to stay hydrated. If your body tells you, “I’m thirsty,” you may already be dehydrated. Stock up on bottled water, a water filter, bleach, and water containers in preparation. Don’t forget you will also need water to cook and clean up with.
Water essentials checklist:
Though we supplement it with cozy fires and space heaters, most of us depend on our city’s grid to heat our homes. When the power goes out, so does the heat. Especially if you don’t have an alternative source, such as a fireplace or wood-burning stove. It won’t take very long for temperatures to fall to freezing inside.
Dress the Part
It may not be news, but the best way to dress for cold weather is by dressing in layers, while avoiding sweating. There are three basic layers for winter weather clothing; a base, insulating and outer layers. Your base layer, usually long johns or thermals need to be made of moisture-wicking fabric. These materials should not only retain heat, but wick away moisture. Look for polypropylene, Thermax, Thinsulate or polyester.
Wool, fleece and other synthetic fabrics are best for your insulating layer or middle layer. Avoid cotton and denim.
Your outer layer protects you from the elements, so you need a waterproof coat, jacket or plastic poncho. GoreTex and nylon are excellent materials that repel wind, rain, snow, sleet, ice and block wind.
We lose as much as 45 percent of our body heat through our head and core. Our extremities— our hands and feet—are also extremely vulnerable to extreme cold. Chemical hand and feet warmers will work wonders at keeping fingers and toes toasty warm. Wear gloves or mittens and cover your head with a beanie.
Wrap it Up
Alternative Forms of Heat
Besides bundling up, a heater that uses an alternative source of power, like a gas-powered generator, wood-burning stove, a fireplace, or indoor-rated propane heater keeps the chill at bay.
Staying warm essentials checklist:
Let There Be Light
You will need a variety of alternative lighting options for cooking, moving about, reading, playing games, and cleaning up. Flashlights come in an exhaustive list of shapes, sizes, functions, features, and lumens. However, for power outages, the best flashlights are LEDs, have multiple power options, such as crank power and battery back up, are hands free, and provide enough illumination to light up a room. LEDs use less battery power than Xenon or incandescent. Lantern-style lights provide a wider area of illumination, light sticks provide the least-amount of light, while flashlights work best for individual work.
Use candles only as back up for when all your flashlights fail.
Lighting essentials checklist:
- LED handheld flashlights
- Hands free lighting
- Crank and emergency lights
Mortality rates increase by 15 percent in the winter over summer. Hypothermia, flu, pneumonia, falls, carbon monoxide poisoning and house fires all contribute to the higher rate during colder months. When forced to shut-in due to severe winter weather, make sure to stay warm, dry, fed and keep everyone—including pets—safe and entertained.
Carbon Monoxide Warning
Approximately 500 Americans die from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning each year. Thousands more seek emergency medical care for exposure to the deadly gas. Portable generators, propane heaters, gas stoves, wood burning stoves, and fireplaces, gas furnaces, propane-powered heaters, stoves and grills, oil and kerosene burning lamps—all things we use as alternatives to heat, cook, and illuminate our homes when the power goes out all emit CO gas. When running kerosene or propane heaters, remember to keep the area well ventilated. Fumes can slowly build up and lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. If you have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, keep the flue free from snow and ice.
One of the best ways to prevent CO poisoning is to buy a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector. It works just like your smoke alarm and will sound a loud alarm when dangerous levels of carbon monoxide are present. There are other ways to prevent CO poisoning, as well.
- Do not use your oven to heat the house
- Do not run a generator inside the house, garage or basement—even with the doors and windows open
- Do not use your portable camping stove inside
- Do not use a charcoal grill indoors
- Keep your vehicle’s exhaust pipe clear of snow and ice
- Do not start your car to warm up in the garage—even with the garage door open
- Make sure all exhaust pipes, flues and vents are clear and clean before using anything burns coal, wood or is propane-powered
- Do not place a charcoal grill, wood fire pit or generator within 10 feet of a window
Heart attack rates increase in winter, generally from overexertion from shoveling snow and clearing walkways. Make sure when tending to the slippery driveways and walkways, do not overdo yourself. If you have elderly neighbors, shovel and clear walkways for them. To avoid having to shovel, keep rock salt, sand and kitty litter on hand to melt ice on walkways to prevent falls. Keep a first aid kit hand in case of falls and other injuries.
- Never leave candles unattended and blow them out before going to sleep.
- Keep any flames, from candles or wood-burning fireplaces at least three feet from any type of flammable material.
- When using an indoor-space heater, keep pets and children a safe distance away. Never put it close to anything flammable. Purchase only ones with extra safety features and automatic shut-off.
- Keep an up-to-date fire extinguisher handy.
Downed Power Lines
Never touch downed power lines or anything else a downed power line might be touching. Call your electricity provider to report downed lines.
Prevent Hypothermia and Frostbite
When your core temperature begins to fall, the body reacts by keeping blood flow restricted to essential organs in the core and sacrifices blood flow to the extremities. This loss of blood flow means that extremities such as fingers, toes, hands and feet do not get enough warm blood flow to maintain tissue at a healthy temperature. The result is frostnip, and eventually frostbite. Frostnip is an early warning sign of frostbite, and is characterized by pale, cool flesh and numbness or loss of sensation in the affected areas.
Frostnip and frostbite can be difficult to detect on yourself, so use of the buddy system is essential. Keep an eye on your friend, and have them keep an eye on you, looking for the initial symptoms of frostnip. Should frostnip be detected, simply warm up the affected areas either by moving to a warmer area, or by protecting and insulating the area of concern.
When our body temperature falls just 3 degrees under 98.6 to 95 degrees, we are at a risk for hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can generate it. If we don’t stay warm enough, our organs can’t work properly. Hypothermia can even lead to death. Every year, roughly 600 Americans die from exposure (hypothermia). Fortunately, hypothermia is easily preventable.
Obviously, you want to stay out of extreme cold temperatures for extended periods. Our head and extremities—fingers, hands, feet and toes—are extremely vulnerable. If you are going to be outside for an extended periods of time, dress in warm layers covering your head, neck and face. Sweating when it is cold increases your chance of getting hypothermia. Moisture evaporates faster when it’s cold making your skin colder. If you are stepping out to exercise, shovel snow, or perform other strenuous work, your first layer of clothing should be made of moisture-wicking fabric. Try to stay as dry as possible. Dress accordingly to stay warm. Further, be sure to stay hydrated and eat. Our bodies burn more calories trying to keep warm.
The objective in treating hypothermia, frostnip and frostbite is to warm the victim slowly. Avoid direct heat on the person suffering. Any extreme change in temperature, such as putting them in a hot bath or vigorously rubbing them can cause shock or cardiac arrest.
- Get inside a home, vehicle, garage, or any other shelter.
- Remove any wet clothing and put on dry clothes.
- Cover completely in blankets leaving only the face open.
- Apply warm, but dry compresses—such as towels or blankets warmed in the drier—to the neck, chest, belly and groin. Applying heat too soon on the legs or arms may cause cold blood to rush to the heart, lungs and brain, which can be deadly.
- Have the afflicted person sip warm beverages, avoiding caffeine and absolutely nothing with alcohol.
If in doubt, call 911 and request medical assistance.
Safety essentials checklist:
- Cell phone
- Portable phone charger
- Solar power
- NOAA radio
- Fire extinguisher
- First aid kit
For an exhaustive list of everything you need to know about preparing for severe winter weather, please read, “Are You Ready for Winter? 30 Days of Preparing for Severe Winter Weather Day 30” where you will find 30 more in-depth articles concerning preparing and surviving the long winter ahead of us.