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Winter Storm Safety
What to Do When a Winter Storm Approaches

Each year, dozens of Americans die from exposure to cold. Major winter storms can last several days and be accompanied by high winds, freezing rain or sleet, heavy snowfall, cold temperatures and various forms of flooding. Heavy snow in the mountains is important for the ski industry and for filling up reservoirs. But winter storms can also produce travel dangers that result in life threatening conditions.

Winter Safety Indoors

Exposure to cold can cause frostbite or hypothermia and become life-threatening. Infants and the elderly are the most susceptible. When a winter storm approaches, stay inside. When using alternate heat from a fireplace, wood stove or space heater, use fire safeguards and properly ventilate. Close off unused rooms. Stuff towels or rags in cracks under doors. Close curtains or cover windows at night.

Get adequate amounts of food and water. Food provides the body with energy for producing its own heat. Keep your body replenished with fluids to prevent dehydration. Wear layers of loose-fitting, light-weight warm clothing. Remove layers to avoid overheating, perspiration and subsequent chilling. Make sure pets have plenty of food and water as well as adequate shelter.

Winter Safety Outdoors

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 body temperature. Animals are also affected by wind chill. Cars, plants and other objects are not.

Avoid overexertion when working outdoors. Heart attacks can kill during and after storms because shoveling snow or freeing stuck vehicles can be stressful to the body.

If caught outside during a winter storm, find shelter immediately. Try to stay dry and cover all exposed body parts. If no shelter is available, 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.

The best way to prevent becoming stuck in a vehicle during a winter storm is to avoid traveling altogether. This can be done by staying informed about the current weather and road conditions in your area as well as the latest weather forecasts. Check with NOAA weather radio or your favorite media source. If you must travel, let someone know of your travel plans.

Frostbite

Frostbite is damage to body tissue caused by extreme cold. A wind chill of –20 degrees Fahrenheit will cause frostbite in just 30 minutes. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in the 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 re-warm the affected areas. However, if the person is also showing signs of hypothermia, warm the body core before its extremities.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit. 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 a victim’s temperature if at all possible. If it is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, seek medical help immediately.

Winter Safety if Stranded in Your Vehicle

If you should become stranded during a winter storm, stay with your vehicle and do not panic. If accompanied by others, take turns sleeping. Run the motor every hour for about ten minutes to maintain warmth, but keep windows open a little to prevent the build-up of carbon monoxide. Make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked. Make yourself visible to rescuers by turning on the dome light at night when you run the motor. Tie a brightly colored cloth tied to the antenna and raise the hood as well.

Exercise periodically by vigorously moving arms, legs, toes and fingers.

In the mountains, avalanches become a possibility in the winter, especially below steep slopes. Avalanches occasionally come down across roads with little or no warning. Caution is advised when traveling through avalanche prone areas, especially after heavy snow has fallen or during periods of rapid snowmelt.

Roads that appear to be clear in the wintertime may actually be coated with a thin layer of ice commonly known as black ice. This nearly invisible ice layer can cause you to rapidly lose control of your vehicle. Black ice is most common during the night-time hours. If you detect black ice, you should reduce your speed.

Adapted from official statements of the National Weather Service Staff
as well as local and state Emergency Management officials.

 
 
Information

Information on road conditions can be obtained by calling the following toll-free telephone numbers:

In Washington 
1-800-695-7623

In Oregon  
1-800-977-6368

In Idaho  
1-888-432-7623

If you want more information on winter weather safety, NOAA weather radio or winter weather brochures, please call your nearest National Weather Service office:

In Washington:
Seattle  206-526-6087 www.wrh.noaa.gov/seattle
Spokane 509-244-6395 www.wrh.noaa.gov/spokane

In Oregon:
Medford 541-773-1067 www.wrh.noaa.gov/medford
Pendleton 541-276-4493 www.wrh.noaa.gov/pendleton
Portland 503-261-9246 www.wrh.noaa.gov/portland

In Idaho
Boise  208-334-9861 www.wrh.noaa.gov/boise
Missoula 406-329-4840 www.wrh.noaa.gov/missoula
Pocatello 208-233-0834 www.wrh.noaa.gov/pocatello