How to Prepare for a Severe Winter Storm

When I moved to Lawrence, Kansas, at the age of 22, I wondered why no one had those giant coffin-type freezers in their basements. Where will they store their winter food? I wondered. I soon learned that winter in eastern Kansas is a far cry from winter in northern North Dakota.

If you live in a place that has blizzards (typically defined up here as a snowstorm with winds over 30 mph that lasts at least three days, though that’s not the dictionary definition), you should know that you need to be prepare. You might have a good year, with one or two major snowstorms but no real blizzards; perhaps a white-out or two (defined as snow heavy enough, or blowing hard enough, that you can’t see across the street), and a couple of 2 foot snowfalls. But look at what happened to New England last year: you must always be prepared for the worst.

First, if you have a fireplace, make sure you have enough wood to last for a week of constant use, reachable without going more than a few steps outside. If the electricity goes out, even if you have a natural gas or propane heater, the fan that moves the heat won’t work. Stock up on sturdy candles, or better yet, for safety’s sake, battery-operated lanterns and enough batteries to keep them running for a week. Also, buy a battery-operated radio, and make sure that you have enough batteries to keep it running for a week.

As for that freezer, make sure you have enough food for 10 days, and that some of it will not require cooking. If you have no electricity, you may have to heat food in a skillet in the fireplace, nearly a lost art. You also need to have plenty of ready to eat foods, and powdered milk. Depending on the size of your household, you will need from 1 to 5 gallons of water per day for at least a week. While the storm may only last three days, it can take up to a week (or more) to clear the streets, particularly in residential areas, which means your access to stores is limited, and if your water pipes freeze and break, your plumber’s access to you is also limited.

If you have children, make sure that you have plenty of things to keep them occupied. Books, games, coloring books, toys, whatever they like. Play games as a family, and keep the children from becoming afraid. Reassure them that they are safe as long as they are with you, and inside. When the storm is all over, they can bundle up and go out and make snow angels, sled, snowboard, or ski, but while the wind is blowing the snow sideways past your home, make sure that staying inside is fun for them.

Make sure that you have plenty of blankets, more than you think you need for the number of beds in your house. If you have no fireplace, and you lose your heat, you’ll need to gather in one area and wrap up in blankets. You may also need to put blankets over the windows if they are drafty. To make sure you have a heat source, a kerosene heater, or gasoline-operated generator for a portable electric heater, is a smart idea. Generators are much safer than kerosene heaters, but they are also much more expensive, and cost is a major factor for many of us (I have oil lamps, and thrift-store blankets for my drafty 1920’s vintage windows, even though they have modern storm windows over them).

You will need to be in contact with the outside world. Cell phones are a real blessing; 40 years ago you needed to walk to the neighbor’s if your power went out, and listen to the radio for news. If you live on a farm or in a rural area, cell phones are even more important – provided, that is, that you aren’t in a “dead zone” where the phones simply don’t work (and there are many of those in rural states). Choose a couple of neighbors or family members, and agree that you will call each other at specific times in the event of a major storm; if someone doesn’t call in, or you can’t reach them, then call the authorities to help them. It is too dangerous to go out in a major winter storm on your own.

Finally, make sure your car has a storm kit. Winter storms can come up suddenly, and even one that only lasts a few hours can be deadly to drivers, as we learned last winter. The kit should include a sturdy waterproof flashlight with fresh batteries and extra batteries; a tin can, like a coffee can, with candles and “strike anywhere” matches; water; a smaller can to melt snow in; instant cocoa (to mix with the water you melted/heated in the smaller can); a thermos of your favorite hot beverage (add this fresh each time you travel out of town in the winter, obviously); ready-to-eat food like granola bars and chocolate (you’ll need the calories) and blankets. If you can afford the heat-retaining blankets, carry one of those. If your car is stopped by the snow, whether you are stuck in a traffic jam or have slid off the road, stay in your car. Do NOT leave your car. You are likely to get lost and freeze to death if you leave it, and you are far more likely to be found, and to survive, if you stay in it. Conserve your gas by turning the engine on only for short periods of time, and make sure that you vent a window a bit when you do, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. You don’t know if snow has clogged your exhaust pipe or not, and you are better off staying in the car than going out and getting cold and snow-covered to find out – and just because it was clear the first time you looked doesn’t mean it will stay clear.

If you prepare for the worst, and use basic common sense, you and your family can survive the worst winter storm, and turn it into a fun winter adventure that you’ll remember for your lifetimes.

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