This year has been pretty terrible for winter storms. The “polar vortex” has caused extreme cold weather even down into the deep south, there have been blizzards in the midwest and along the east coast, and folks have had to deal with snow, whiteouts, freezing rain, ice and power outages. Whee!
In the past I did a two part series for Walmart on general storm preparedness. When Walmart asked me to write about a winter topic, I realized it was a great opportunity to follow up on that topic and address winter storms in particular.
Preparing for a winter storm is much the same as preparing for any other storm or disaster. There are 6 key areas that you must consider which I discussed extensively in my initial storm post:
In Storm Preparedness Part 1 :
4) FIRE (LIGHT/HEAT/ELECTRICITY)
5) HEALTH AND SANITATION
Rather than rehashing all of that, I’m going to go through each of the 6 categories and concentrate on anything that is different than or specific for Winter Storms. I highly recommend that you take a look at those posts, as I will not be repeating the information here.
Food concerns during a winter storm are a bit different then for other types of storms or disasters. If your power remains on your only concern is having enough food on hand to “shelter in place” (ie just stay home and not drive anywhere) until the roads clear. If the storm slows down shipping and transportation then it may take a few extra days to get store shelves restocked with the essentials after a big storm. FEMA recommends that you keep 3 days of non perishable food on hand for emergencies–but considering the situations we’ve seen with storms in the past few years I’d personally recommend always having about 2 weeks of food in the house.
If you power goes out it is, as my grandmother used to say, a whole nother ball of wax! Unlike in the summer months, during the winter spoilage is rarely a problem. Remember, the average temperature inside of a refrigerator is 40 degrees Farenheit, and zero degrees in the freezer. So if the weather is at 40 or below, the entire outdoors is essentially a refrigerator! (note: if you store food outdoors in an emergency situation you should still put it inside something that is animal proof, like a locked shed, a plastic cooler, a deck box etc).
The biggest problem with food in a winter storm situation is cooking it without access to power. I’ll cover the “how” of managing to cook in a little bit–but for right now let’s assume that you will need a few foods that can be eaten without cooking, either because you never heat them, like protein bars, or because they are precooked and complete like ravioli (which might not be appetizing cold straight out of the can, but is edible and has calories your body needs). Quick foods that don’t require a lot of preparation are also good for emergency events.
Humans require a lot of water–the minimum suggested to be stored for an emergency situation is 1 gallon per day per person. If you are on a municipal water supply, then you probably don’t have to worry about the water stopping if the power goes out–but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. If you are on a well, then the pump stops working when the power goes out and you are stuck.
If you know there is a chance of the power going out then you may want to fill your washing machine or bathtub with water that can be used for flushing and washing (don’t drink it–too much soap residue). Your hot water heater is also a big reservoir of water (ours is 80 gallons just sitting there). You can also fill up containers with water and store them. While it’s tempting to reuse cleaned out milk jugs, that isn’t recommended as they are really intended to be single use containers and are known to spring leaks. You can purchase some really nice water containers at Walmart in the camping section (see the 6 gallon & 7 gallon ones in the picture below) or you can reuse well washed liter soda bottles (which are cheaper but more difficult to store neatly).
Another important aspect of “water” in the winter is freezing pipes. If your power is out and you don’t have a way to keep your bathrooms and kitchen warm enough for the pipes to stay thawed (note: open cabinets so the heat can get in at the pipes!), you can leave your faucets going at a trickle. The movement of the water through the pipes should keep them from freezing. Sure, your water bill might be a bit high for the month, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than fixing busted pipes.
Shelter & Fire
The key aspect of “shelter” in a winter storm situation is keeping warm–so I’m combining these two topics.
If your power stays on during a winter storm then you are in pretty good shape–until you set foot outdoors to deal with the aftermath of the storm (shoveling, cars, downed limbs). Multiple thinner layers that trap insulating pockets of air are far superior to a single thick layer. Keep your head and hands covered, and make sure you have warm boots and thick socks–preferably wool. Why wool? Because wool will still keep you warm even if it gets wet. Other fabrics–such as the cotton that makes up our blue jeans–will actually wick heat away from your body when it gets wet, making you colder. Walmart not only carries the typical jackets and outerwear you would expect, but they have cold weather layering pieces, wool socks, and boots that are handily labeled with the temperatures they are good for! If you need more information on how to dress correctly for the cold, Sierra Trading Post has a nice article “Head to Toe Winter Dressing Guide“.
If you power goes out, well, then you’ve got to be concerned about staying warm inside of your house. The best thing is if you have an alternate heat source. Wood stoves are sort of the gold standard of “off grid” heat–but for a variety of reasons many of us do not have one (note: Pellet or coal stoves these days tend to require electricity to work). Having a kerosene heater or a Propane heater is a good idea for heat backup, although both have their safety concerns. Kerosene heaters should be attended at all times to prevent fire or injury from burning (the exterior can be very hot). Propane heaters typically are made ONLY to be used outside or in a very well ventilated room like a big shop. There is a very real danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. There is only one propane heater that I know of that is rated for indoor use–that’s the Mr. Buddy propane heater (My Walmart had them in the camping section) which includes an oxygen sensor and automatic shutoff. Of course neither the kerosene heater nor the propane heater will work without fuel–so store those as well.
Whatever your heat source you will want to conserve it and heat the smallest space necessary. Choose a room that has doors you can close and designate it as the warm room rather than trying to heat the entire house. You can even use tacks and hang blankets over the doorways.
If you have no alternate heat source then you will want to dress in layers, including hats and gloves, like you would for the outdoors. Pull out your sleeping bags, and you might even want to consider setting up a tent in the middle of your living room–that way you might be able to have your body heat warm up the interior of the tent to a somewhat more reasonable temperature.
The other aspect of heating is heating food. While many of us have grills (which make a fantastic alternative in temperate conditions) I’m not about to pop out on the deck in sub zero weather to slap a couple of steaks on the grill. You need a way to cook food and warm up beverages. A simple thing to buy and store is a Sterno folding stove. While somewhat limited in use–it’s relatively inexpensive, easy to store and will get the basic job of heating water, soup etc done. The next step up would be some sort of propane camp stove (Walmart sells about 4 different types in the camping section of my store). These are a little more versatile–you can control the temperature like you do on your traditional stovetop and do any recipes that you normally would. However, like the propane heater ventilation is VERY important. You are only supposed to use them outside or in an extremely well ventilated environment–like a garage with the door partially open.
Finally in the “Shelter and Fire” section we have to address light. In the winter for most of the country night comes very early. If you have no power and no additional light, then there pretty much isn’t anything to do once the sun sets–and that would make bedtime around 6pm! That makes having an alternate light source pretty important!
Candles are a classic light source, but they are a fire hazard. While I always keep some candles on hand, I prefer to rely on other lights and have those just as a backup to my backup! NEVER leave a candle burning unattended, and always make sure it is held in something non flammable, is not near anything like drapery and fabric, and that it is on a stable surface and unlikely to be tipped over.
Oil lamps, LED lamps, flashlights and headlamps are very easy to find in a variety of price points and styles. I personally prefer headlamps (that’s a light on an elastic band that goes around your forehead and conveniently points wherever you look) for any tasks where I may want to use my hand–like washing dishes, reading, or cooking.
Oil lamps and LED lanterns are both good for area lighting–keeping a room bright enough to accomplish tasks and prevent running into things. You’d be surprised how long an LED lantern can go on a single set of batteries–but keeping extra high performance batteries on hand specifically for emergency situations is a good idea.
And don’t forget if you are going to rely on candles, oil lamps or propane anything–you’ve got to have a way to light those fires! Keep some strike anywhere matches and/or a lighter available. I particularly like the longer lighters that you can use for starting your grill–it keeps ones fingers away from the flame. Both the matches and the long lighter were sort of hidden over in what I think of as the “kitchen gadget” section of Walmart housewares–where the can openers, lemon zesters, measuring cups, tongs and all that other stuff are 🙂
Health and Sanitation
The biggest health concern in a winter storm is cold injuries–frostbite, hypothermia etc. (I’m linking to the Army’s Cold Weather Injury page because it has all you need to know!). If you know what to look for, how to dress and have an alternate heating method you should be able to avoid cold weather injuries.
Special care should be taken with young children, the elderly and folks with compromised immune systems.
Sanitation may be challenging, especially if you don’t have access to water. For short term events having some hand sanitizer available and disposable dishes and cutlery (so you don’t have to try to wash dishes) is helpful. For a longer term situation you may need to warm water for both dishes and personal hygiene (even if you have running water your water heater won’t be heating!)–that brings you back to the need for a stove of some type as well as a larger pot for water.
And of course don’t forget the health and safety of your pets. They should be kept in the warmest are of the house with you and not left out in frigid weather for longer than strictly necessary.
Safety and Security
For your personal safety during winter storms you want to try to prevent slips and falls. Keep ice melt/salt and snow shovels on hand where you can reach them easily. You really don’t want to trudge through a foot of snow or skid across ice a couple of hundred yards out to a garden shed to find the snow shovel and the salt!
One of the few additional things to consider in a winter storm for security is that your methods for securing your possessions–your locks–might ice up. If you can’t get the key to work in the door to your shed, you can’t get at your snow blower. If you can’t open the car door because the lock is frozen, you can’t go anywhere. Keep some de-icer spray on hand, and remember that in a pinch you can try cupping your hands around the item and using your warm breath to defrost it (but don’t touch your lips to the cold metal–you’ll wind up like the kid in a Christmas Story with your tongue stuck to the flagpole) .
And speaking of locks–although I didn’t specifically address generators in this post (I covered them in the initial storm post) if you are fortunate enough to have a generator and are running it–you may want to ensure that you have a nice solid chain and padlock available to secure it to your deck or porch. Folks have been known to steal them during longer term emergencies.
There are some extra things I like to have on hand for storms that don’t neatly fall into the above categories.
The first is at least one 5 gallon bucket. Walmart has these back in the paint section for about $3 ea. If you are lucky they also have the lids in stock (another $1 or so). Since the name of the manufacturer and their phone number was on the bucket (Encore Plastics Corp) I gave them a call and confirmed that yes, these buckets are made from food grade plastic. Why is that important? Well it means that it is a multipurpose bucket. Of course you can just use it as a container for your “Storm” kit–but you can rest easy also knowing that if you needed to you could fill it up with drinking water or place food in it and set it outside with the lid on as a temporary “fridge”. You could, if you wanted, store bulk food in it (like I do with my buckets of sugar and rice) or use it for your compost without worrying about leaching chemicals into the garden.
Next is a way to charge your cell phone in a power outage. Of course you can put it out in your car and let it charge (as long as your car battery is good and you have gas to run the engine and recharge the car battery)–but I found this cool Rayovac 7 hour recharger at Walmart up on the battery center display. It takes 4 AA batteries and can give your phone a 7 hour charge. If you stock up on some really good batteries (like the Duracell Quantum) and conserve your battery power by turning off push notifcations and dimming your screen you should be able to stay in contact with the world for quite a while.
Finally a little luxury that would surely mean a lot in a power outage–you might consider picking up a camping shower. These are plastic bags with an attached nozzle & hose you fill with water and then leave out in the sun to heat while camping. In a power outage you could warm water on your alternate cooking source, then fill the shower bag (adding cold water to get a safe temperature) and hang it from your shower bar–then you’d be able to rinse off the funk of the day with warm water. Ahhh! Trust me, as someone who deployed in the Army and had to go days at a time without showering–a warm shower can do wonders for the morale!
So here we go folks–I’ve given you all the great ideas and suggestions I can think off–it’s time for my fantastic audience to share their knowledge! What additional ideas, suggestions or even questions do you have about preparing for storms in general and winters storms in particular? enquiring minds want to know (and other readers probably have the same question and are too shy to ask)