Surviving Winter Storms
Home tips for severe cold, ice, and snow events
Recently we had a major ice storm where I live in central Texas, causing a lot of disruption including power outages, downed trees, and other problems. This comes on the heels of a major winter storm a couple of years ago that included an ice storm, two large snowfalls, and ten consecutive days of freezing temperatures with night time lows of 0°F. Several hundred thousand people were without electrical power for a week or more as well as being without running water or natural gas. Stores were depleted of critical supplies including food, bottled water, and medicines. Dozens of people lost their lives, and had it gone on much longer it would have led to crises for many more.
People living in northern latitudes are accustomed to such storms, and so are generally prepared to deal with the impacts, both from an individual and collective standpoint (i.e. critical infrastructure in cities and towns). But in the southern United States this is typically not the case; hence, if you live in this region you need to know what you can do both before and during a big winter storm so that you don’t find yourself in an untenable situation or even worse, a true survival scenario. Here’s some practical steps you can take so that you can hang on indefinitely through extreme winter weather:
Before the storm:
Make sure you have ample supplies of food, critical medicines, and bottled water (e.g. 5 gallon jugs) that will last you a minimum of several weeks (allocate at least a gallon of water per day, per adult). Have at least a couple of large ice chests/coolers that you can put refrigerated food in assuming you lose power.
If you don’t want to procure bottled water, make sure you have access to a reliable supply for drinking (don’t count on the city’s water supply, it may get cut off). Have at least 2 purification methods like iodine tablets, water purifier/pump, or the ability to boil.
If your house’s external plumbing is not heavily insulated, go outside before temperatures plummet or cold rain starts and put foam covers on outside faucets/pipes or wrap with towels or other insulating material.
If/when the power goes out, fire will become essential for warmth, cooking, boiling water, and light, as well as emotional well-being (fire is an ancient human tonic). If you don’t have a built in fireplace, buy a portable stove or propane heater and make sure you have proper ventilation/exhaust pipe to outside.
If burning wood in a fireplace or stove, have a substantial supply of logs on hand (it’s easy to burn 20 or more in a day) along with at least 2 methods for ignition (lighter, matches, striker) and plenty of fire starter like paper and kindling.
Have access to an axe (that is sharp) or a gas powered chainsaw that is in working condition. Being able to obtain additional fire wood or remove a fallen tree that is blocking your exit route can be a life saver.
If you plan to cook with gas, ensure that if the power is out you can still light your stove/oven without electric ignition. If not, have a backup like a portable camp stove with propane canisters.
Have the appropriate clothing for when you need to go outside to get wood or other resources, make a repair, etc. This includes several layers of warm clothing along with gloves, waterproof outer shell and appropriate boots/footwear.
Make sure that you have several flashlights including one that is powerful (e.g. spotlight) and a headlamp for every person in the house. Check that they work and that you have new alkaline batteries (don’t use rechargeable ones) and plenty of spares in case you are out of power for a week or more.
Check that your vehicle is adequately equipped in case you have to leave your domicile for any reason. This means ensuring you have quality tires (along with snow chains if you live in a mountainous area), anti-freeze and windshield wiper fluid that won’t freeze in extreme temperatures, a reliable battery that will start your car in cold conditions, and a full tank of gas (and extra gas cans as needed).
Prepare a bug out bag that has essential survival tools like knife, lighter, flashlight, water bottle/purifier, etc. in the event you have to evacuate your dwelling via foot or vehicle (will cover in more detail what items should be included in a future post).
During the storm:
When it starts, hope for the best but assume the worst…get your gear together and organize it, placing it in accessible location(s) that you can easily find in the event of a power outage (i.e. no lights).
If you don’t already have an adequate supply of drinking water, fill one of your bathtubs near the brim (usually about 40 gallons worth) and ensure you have a reliable stopper to prevent leakage.
If temperatures are expected to drop to 15°F or below, consider dripping your inside faucets to prevent your pipes freezing/bursting. If expected to drop to close to 0°F or below, consider turning off your water mains (you will need to know where that is and how to turn off the valve with a wrench or other tool) and then drain all the water in your lines afterward (make sure you have filled containers with drinking water before you do this).
If you have to go outside after a freezing rain event which results in an accumulation of ice, stay well away from any trees as the weight of ice on large branches (and even trunks) can cause them to snap and fall on you causing serious injury
If you have to walk or drive on frozen precipitation, be very wary of ‘black’ ice which is extremely slippery and is often invisible or mistaken for puddles (i.e. liquid water). Avoid contact with it if you can, and if you must cross it then go very slowly and if possible have your other foot/wheels on a surface with good traction.
If the situation lasts a long time, do your best to maintain a good attitude which is always helpful in any stressful situation when you are dealing with the elements. Avoid alcohol as you will likely be tired and will need all of your faculties, and don’t be afraid to call for help from neighbors, EMS, et al. Finally, remember that the storm will eventually pass, and things will return to normal.