Winter Storms and Blizzards

We’re going to cover three kinds of winter storms that are dangerous: Blizzards, heavy snow events, and ice storms.  All three can cause immediate damage in different ways and long term danger as well.

  • The high winds of a blizzard limit visibility and make driving very dangerous.  Drifts can quickly form, often faster than snow plows can clear the highway.  If a blizzard is predicted or at hand, avoid vehicle travel. In fact, avoid leaving your home when visibility is poor.  People have gotten lost walking only 100 feet in a blizzard because the blinding snow.  In the old days, farmers would tie guide ropes from their house to their barn so they could safely walk from one to the other.  If you need to leave your home to get to an outbuilding, this is not a bad idea.Blizzards also can generate tremendous amounts of snow in very short periods of time.  It is not unusual for cars and even trains to be snowbound due to the rapid accumulation of several feet of snow.  Years ago, blizzards would make mountain passes impassible for months.  Today, it can take days or weeks to dig out, even with modern snow removal equipment.  So if you are traveling in blizzard country, have a well stocked survival kit in your car.

    Here’s an interesting site about blizzards and snow: http://www.richardjwild.co.uk/

  • Heavy Winter Snow

    Heavy winter snow brings traffic to a halt and makes travelling by car almost impossible.

    Any heavy snowfall can also cause power lines to fall and tree limbs to crack and break, which in turn can snap power lines.  While this is less likely in a storm with cold, powdery snow, it happens all the time when the weather is just below freezing and the snow is damp.  (Warmer weather holds more moisture, so heavy snowfalls often occur when it is only a few degrees below freezing.) Damp, wet snow is very heavy and in addition to causing power problems can cause roofs to collapse, both in homes not designed to withstand such a heavy load and in commercial buildings.  It seems that we read annually about a store roof or warehouse collapsing due to an unexpectedly heavy snowstorm.

  • In an ice storm, rain falls from a warmer cloud onto a cold surface and freezes, coating everything with ice.  Obviously, you don’t want to be on anything with wheels when the road is coated with solid ice, and it’s hard to walk without falling and possibly breaking a bone or at least sustaining a serious bump or bruise.  From inside a safe, snug house, the ice looks beautiful, until it gets to be about a quarter of an inch think and things start to break.  Half an inch of ice all over a tree limb is really heavy.  Here in North Carolina, the weight of ice causes pine trees to bend over until “POW!” they reach the breaking point with a crack that sounds like an artillery shell.  Often, after the ice builds up, it will start to snow, hiding the ice and making the thaw take that much longer.  Power outages of a week to 30 days after a severe ice storm are not unheard of.

Snow kills about 200 people a year in the U.S.  Most of these deaths are from traffic accidents, so stay off the roads if possible.

When a winter storm cuts power, the immediate danger is from the cold.  Hypothermia is a danger as temperatures fall, and wind chills can suck the heat out of your house surprisingly quickly.  Your first defense is to dress warmly.  Wear thermal underwear, a hat, wool socks, and a heavy sweater.

A secondary (non-electric) source of heat is important, and wood stoves are probably the most efficient. While fire places send much of the heat up the chimney they share with wood stoves the conveniences of being able to find fuel all around you, including books and furniture if you run out of firewood. (Let’s face it, most of have too much junk in our houses anyway.) Of course, a well-prepared person should have plenty of seasoned wood in their covered woodpile and a good supply already in the house.  You can also cook over a woodstove or a fireplace in a pinch, and when the blizzard is howling around your house, a cup of hot chocolate tastes twice as good as normal and restores the spirits.

Kerosene and propane heaters can also crank out the BTUs in an emergency but require adequate ventilation. (Check the manufacturer’s literature for specifics). Every unexpected winter storm seems to generate a news story about a family that was killed by a kerosene heater or other sources of heat that was inadequately ventilated and generated carbon monoxide, the silent killer.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is also a concern which must be considered when using non-traditional heat sources, such as gathering around the gas oven and opening the door. (Captain Dave once had a stupid roommate from Deep South who apparently didn’t know how to turn up a thermostat. One cold day he used the oven to heat the house, so don’t think it can’t happen! He also didn’t know you had to open the flue before lighting the fire in the fireplace, but that’s another story.)  While we do not recommend using a gas oven to heat the house, if you must, we recommend baking something to heat up the oven, and then turning it off and opening the door to release the heat.  Do not leave the door open with the burner lit.

Fire is also a danger with any secondary heat source, including wood stoves, fireplaces, kerosene, propane and electric heaters.  Keep combustible materials away from these heat sources, do not use on carpeted floors, and place them several feet from a wall.  (Follow manufacturer directions and building codes during installation.) Keep children and pets away from these temporary heat sources, don’t tip them over, and have a fire extinguisher handy.

A key to keeping warm with these back-up heat sources is avoid trying to try to heat the entire house. Gather everything you think you might need into a single room and close the room off. Use any blankets you can spare over windows and doors, if necessary to reduce drafts. Gather together under your comforters and share your body heat.   Keep your pets close as they will warm you as well (ever hear of a three dog night?)  A relatively small heat source can warm up a small room.  Just be careful that you do not eliminate all sources for fresh air and therefore set the stage for carbon monoxide poisoning.

If the temperatures start to drop in your house, turn off the water and drain the system, opening all the faucets, including one at the lowest point in your house.  This will keep your pipes from freezing.  If this is not an option, allow the water to run slowly, dripping out of each faucet, as this will also help keep the pipes from freezing.

Prepare in Advance

While we often get advanced warning of impending snowstorms, the suddenness and severity of a blizzards or heavy snow storm can still surprise.  Blizzards have trapped people at work, kids at schools, and stranded motorists on the side of the road.  The conditions for an ice storm are so fickle, they are hard to predict.  In other words, don’t expect three days advance notice, as you may get in a hurricane.  The best time to prepare for a winter storm or other weather event is in the fall, well before the first snowfall.  And when the weather forecast calls for heavy snow, stay home.

The general advice about stocking food and water applies, but the importance of planning for an alternate heat source that does not depend on outside utilities cannot be underestimated.  Cold kills.  Installing a wood stove is best done months before winter, and wood should be cut, split and allowed to dry or season for nine months or more before it is burned.  In fact, smart wood burners cut wood two summers before the winter they expect to burn it and have cord upon cord of wood drying beneath a tarp or other shelter.  The trick is to burn it in the time period between it being seasoned and when it finally rots.  Keep it dry and off the ground will help prevent rotting.

If wood is not the answer for you, purchase your kerosene or other heater and familiarize yourself with it before you need it.  Captain Dave has been in cold rooms heated by kerosene heaters and while they may save your life in a cold weather emergency, they are far from ideal and nowhere near as hot as a wood stove.  Most smell at least slightly and produce limited BTUs.

Captain Dave has also slept in a small, un-insulated hunting shack heated by a small pot bellied stove that could use logs no longer than 16 or so inches.  That stove burned through wood like it was going out of style, and no doubt a fair amount of heat went up the chimney, but it did a remarkable job of heating the cabin, even on a cold and windy night. As long as someone would wake up to put in a few more logs, we were perfectly comfortable.

Do not think that climate change, “global warming” or any other meteorological phenomenon will keep you safe.  If anything, we seem to be in a decade of heavy snowfall.  Snow falls not only in the areas that are used to it, but often in the South and other unprepared areas.  An inch of snow in Dallas, Texas, can cause more confusion and injuries than a foot in Duluth, Minn., so do not think you are completely safe anywhere in the continental U.S.

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