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Winter Storms and Extreme Cold

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What to do before the winter season

1. Know the terms used by weather forecasters:
    Freezing rain: Rain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads and walkways.

    Sleet: Rain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet also causes roads to freeze and become slippery.

    Winter Weather Advisory: Cold, ice and snow are expected.

    Winter Storm Watch: Severe winter weather such as heavy snow or ice is possible within the next day or two.

    Winter Storm Warning: Severe winter conditions have begun or are about to begin.

    Blizzard Warning: Heavy snow and strong winds will produce a blinding snow, near zero visibility, deep drifts and life-threatening wind chill.

    Frost/Freeze Warning: Below freezing temperatures are expected

2. Gather emergency supplies:
  • A battery-powered NOAA weather radio and a battery-powered commercial radio with extra batteries
  • Food that doesn't require cooking
  • Extra water in clean soda bottles
  • Rock salt to melt ice on walkways, and sand to improve traction
  • Flashlights, battery-powered lamps and extra batteries in case of a power outage. Candles are a fire hazard

3. Prepare for possible isolation in your home:
  • Make sure you have sufficient heating fuel; regular fuel sources may be cut off.
  • Have emergency heating equipment and fuel (a gas fireplace, wood burning stove, kerosene heater, or fireplace) so you can keep at least one room of your house warm enough to be livable. If your furnace is controlled by a thermostat and your electricity is cut off by a storm, you will need emergency heat. For safety, follow all manufacturers' instructions in the operation of heating equipment.
  • If you have a fireplace, store a good supply of dry, seasoned wood.
  • Keep fire extinguishers on hand, and make sure your family knows how to use them.

4. Winterize your home to extend the life of your fuel supply.
  • Insulate walls and attics
  • Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows
  • Install storm windows or cover windows with plastic.

What to do during a winter storm

1. Listen to local radio or television stations or a NOAA weather radio for weather reports and emergency information.

2. Dress for the season:
  • Wear several layers of loose-fitting, light-weight, warm clothing rather than one layer of heavy clothing. The outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent.
  • Mittens are warmer than gloves.
  • Wear a hat; most body heat is lost through the top of the head.
  • Cover your mouth with a clean scarf to protect your lungs from the cold air.

3. Be careful when shoveling snow. Overexertion can bring on a heart attack -- a major cause of death in the winter. If you must shovel snow, do some stretch exercises before going out and don't overexert yourself. Consider purchasing a snow blower (similar to a lawn mower for snow), which requires far less exertion to remove a significant volume of snow.

4. Check on neighbors who may have trouble staying safe during winter storms. Elderly or homebound residents are at particular risk. Make sure they have adequate heating and food and offer to clear their sidewalks or driveways.

5. Watch for signs of frostbite - 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.

6. Watch for signs of hypothermia - uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness or apparent exhaustion. If symptoms of hypothermia are detected, get medical help immediately.

7. When at home:
  • Conserve fuel if necessary by keeping your house somewhat cooler than normal.
  • Temporarily "close off" heat to some rooms.
  • When using kerosene heaters, maintain ventilation to avoid build-up of toxic fumes. Refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet from flammable objects.

Winter driving tips

1. If you must travel, consider taking public transportation. Valley Metro runs on snow routes during most winter weather, so call 540-982-2222 to check the schedule for your area. If you travel by car, travel in the day, don't travel alone, and keep others informed of your schedule. Stay on main roads; avoid back-road shortcuts.

2. Plan your route before leaving. Check 511 telephone services and travel information web sites for updates on traffic jams, road construction, lane closures, severe weather and travel times on interstates and major highways.

3. Keep your car "winterized" with antifreeze. Use snow tires.

4. Carry a "winter car kit" in the trunk of your car. Keep these items in your car: Shovel, windshield scraper, battery-powered radio, flashlight, extra batteries, water, snack food, mittens, hat, blanket, tow chains or rope, tire chains, bag of road salt, sand, a fluorescent distress flag, booster cables, road map, emergency flares.

5. If a blizzard traps you in your car:
  • Pull off the highway. Set your hazard lights to "flashing" and hang a distress flag from the radio antenna or window.
  • Remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. Do not set out on foot unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. Be careful -- distances are distorted by blowing snow. A building may seem close but be too far to walk to in deep snow.
  • Run the engine and heater about ten minutes each hour to keep warm. When the engine is running, open a window slightly for ventilation. This will protect you from possible carbon monoxide poisoning. Periodically clear away snow from the exhaust pipe.
  • Exercise to maintain body heat, but avoid overexertion. In extreme cold, use road maps, seat covers and floor mats for insulation. Huddle with passengers and use your coat for a blanket.
  • Take turns sleeping. One person should be awake at all times to look out for rescue crews.
  • Be careful not to use up battery power. Balance electrical energy needs -- the use of lights, heat and radio -- with supply.
  • If stranded in a remote rural area, spread a large cloth over the snow to attract attention of rescue personnel who may be surveying the area by airplane. Once the blizzard passes, you may need to leave the car and proceed on foot.

6. Don't tailgate. For every 10 mph of speed, stay at least one vehicle length behind the vehicle in front of you. On icy roads, you should allow at least three times more space between you and the vehicle in front of you. Remember that bridges and overpasses are usually the first to freeze in cold conditions.

7. Slow down during bad weather. Each year, there are approximately 6,500 fatalities and 450,000 injuries from crashes that occur during bad weather.


Local Winter Storm Facts

  • About 70 percent of winter storm deaths occur in automobiles. The rest are primarily due to heart attacks from overexertion or hypothermia caused by overexposure to the cold. When winter storms strike, stay indoors as much as possible and keep warm and dry. Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow or performing other difficult tasks. Your heart is already working overtime in the cold to keep your body warm.
  • In January 1857, Arctic air gripped Virginia. All of Virginia's rivers froze solid and the Chesapeake Bay froze a mile and a half from its coast. At Cape Henry, Virginia, you could walk 100 yards out from the lighthouse on frozen ocean.
  • About half of all people killed by exposure to cold (hypothermia) are over 60 years of age. Over 75 percent of these victims are men. About 20 percent of the deaths occur in the home. Elderly and children under the age of one are most susceptible to cold. For these people, keep indoor temperatures above 70 degrees and dress appropriately for the season with plenty of layers of thin clothes and a hat on the head.
  • In February 1983, Roanoke received 18 inches of snow with wind gusts over 25 mph, causing drifts of up to three feet. This was the third heaviest snowfall in over 100 years.
  • The "Storm of the Century" hit the valley in March 1993. With blizzard-like conditions and nearly 30 inches of snow, this was the biggest winter storm in 10 years. Roanoke received a presidential declaration of emergency and the National Guard was called to help with emergency transportation needs. Shelters were open for those without electricity.
  • A devastating storm struck the Roanoke Valley and surrounding jurisdictions in February 1994, with one to three inches of solid ice from freezing rain and sleet. Roads were blocked, electric and phone lines were lost and a large portion of the valley was without electricity. Even Washington, D.C. completely shut down as emergency crews battled the weather.
  • Heavy snowfall and extreme cold can immobilize an entire region. Even areas which normally experience mild winters can be hit with a major snow storm or extreme cold. The results can range from isolation due to blocked roads and downed power lines to the havoc of cars and trucks sliding on icy highways.