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Some Common Natural Hazards
A neighborhood street covered 3 foot deep in snow

While the danger from winter weather varies across the country, nearly all Americans, regardless of where they live, are likely to face some type of severe winter weather at some point in their lives. Winter storms can range from a moderate snow over a few hours to a blizzard with blinding, wind-driven snow that lasts for several days. Many winter storms are accompanied by dangerously low temperatures and sometimes by strong winds, icing, sleet and freezing rain.

One of the primary concerns is the winter weather's ability to knock out heat, power and communications services to your home or office, sometimes for days at a time. Heavy snowfall and extreme cold can immobilize an entire region.

The National Weather Service refers to winter storms as the “Deceptive Killers” because most deaths are indirectly related to the storm. Instead, people die in traffic accidents on icy roads and of hypothermia from prolonged exposure to cold. It is important to be prepared for winter weather before it strikes.

A snow-laden tree resting on a car in a snow covered landscapeBefore Winter Storms and Extreme Cold

To prepare for a winter storm you should do the following:

  • Before winter approaches, add the following supplies to your emergency kit:
    • Rock salt or more environmentally safe products to melt ice on walkways. Visit the Environmental Protection Agency for a complete list of recommended products.
    • Sand to improve traction.
    • Snow shovels and other snow removal equipment.
    • Sufficient heating fuel. You may become isolated in your home and regular fuel sources may be cut off. Store a good supply of dry, seasoned wood for your fireplace or wood-burning stove.
    • Adequate clothing and blankets to keep you warm.
  • Make a Family Communications Plan. Your family may not be together when disaster strikes, so it is important to know how you will contact one another, how you will get back together and what you will do in case of an emergency.
  • A NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts alerts and warnings directly from the NWS for all hazards. You may also sign up in advance to receive notifications from your local emergency services.
    Download FEMA’s Be Smart. Know Your Alerts and Warnings for a summary of notifications at: Free smart phone apps, such as those available from FEMA and the American Red Cross, provide information about finding shelters, providing first aid, and seeking assistance for recovery.
  • Minimize travel. If travel is necessary, keep a disaster supplies kit in your vehicle.
  • Bring pets/companion animals inside during winter weather. Move other animals or livestock to sheltered areas with non-frozen drinking water.
Winterize Your Vehicle

Check or have a mechanic check the following items on your car:

  • Antifreeze levels - ensure they are sufficient to avoid freezing.
  • Battery and ignition system - should be in top condition and battery terminals should be clean.
  • Brakes - check for wear and fluid levels.
  • Exhaust system - check for leaks and crimped pipes and repair or replace as necessary. Carbon monoxide is deadly and usually gives no warning.
  • Fuel and air filters - replace and keep water out of the system by using additives and maintaining a full tank of gas. A full tank will keep the fuel line from freezing.
  • Heater and defroster - ensure they work properly.
  • Lights and flashing hazard lights - check for serviceability.
  • Oil - check for level and weight. Heavier oils congeal more at low temperatures and do not lubricate as well.
  • Thermostat - ensure it works properly.
  • Windshield wiper equipment - repair any problems and maintain proper washer fluid level.
  • Install good winter tires - Make sure the tires have adequate tread. All-weather radials are usually adequate for most winter conditions. However, some jurisdictions require that to drive on their roads, vehicles must be equipped with chains or snow tires with studs.

Update the emergency kits in your vehicles with:

  • a shovel
  • windshield scraper and small broom
  • flashlight
  • battery powered radio
  • extra batteries
  • water
  • snack food
  • matches
  • extra hats, socks and mittens
  • first aid kit with pocket knife
  • necessary medications
  • blanket(s)
  • tow chain or rope
  • road salt and sand
  • booster cables
  • emergency flares
  • fluorescent distress flag
Winterize Your Home
  • Winterize your home to extend the life of your fuel supply by insulating walls and attics, caulking and weather-stripping doors and windows, and installing storm windows or covering windows with plastic.
  • Winterize your house, barn, shed or any other structure that may provide shelter for your family, neighbors, livestock or equipment. Clear rain gutters; repair roof leaks and cut away tree branches that could fall on a house or other structure during a storm.
  • Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected every year.
  • Insulate pipes with insulation or newspapers and plastic and allow faucets to drip a little during cold weather to avoid freezing. Running water, even at a trickle, helps prevent pipes from freezing.
  • All fuel-burning equipment should be vented to the outside and kept clear.
  • Keep fire extinguishers on hand, and make sure everyone in your house knows how to use them. House fires pose an additional risk, as more people turn to alternate heating sources without taking the necessary safety precautions.
  • Learn how to shut off water valves (in case a pipe bursts).
  • Insulate your home by installing storm windows or covering windows with plastic from the inside to keep cold air out.
  • Hire a contractor to check the structural ability of the roof to sustain unusually heavy weight from the accumulation of snow - or water, if drains on flat roofs do not work.
Know the Terms

Know the terms used to describe changing winter weather conditions and what actions to take. These terms can be used to determine the timeline and severity of an approaching storm. (Advisory / Watch / Warning). The NWS also issues advisories and warnings for other winter weather, including blizzards, freezes, wind chill, lake effect snow, and dense fog. Be alert to weather reports and tune in for specific guidance when these conditions develop.

Freezing Rain - Rain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees and power lines.

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

Wind Chill- Windchill is the temperature it “feels like” when you are outside. The NWS provides a Windchill Chart to show the difference between air temperature and the perceived temperature and the amount of time until frostbite occurs. For more information, visit:

Winter Weather Advisory - Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. When caution is used, these situations should not be life threatening. The NWS issues a winter weather advisory when conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences that may be hazardous. If caution is used, these situations should not be life-threatening.

Winter Storm Watch - A winter storm is possible in your area. Tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for more information. The NWS issues a winter storm watch when severe winter conditions, such as heavy snow and/or ice, may affect your area but the location and timing are still uncertain. A winter storm watch is issued 12 to 36 hours in advance of a potential severe storm. Tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, local radio, TV, or other news sources for more information. Monitor alerts, check your emergency supplies, and gather any items you may need if you lose power.

Winter Storm Warning - A winter storm is occurring or will soon occur in your area.

Blizzard Warning - Sustained winds or frequent gusts to 35 miles per hour or greater and considerable amounts of falling or blowing snow (reducing visibility to less than a quarter mile) are expected to prevail for a period of three hours or longer.

Frost/Freeze Warning - Below freezing temperatures are expected.

Carbon Monoxide

Caution: Each year, an average of 430 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, and there are more than 20,000 visits to the emergency room with more than 4,000 hospitalizations. Carbon monoxide-related deaths are highest during colder months. These deaths are likely due to increased use of gas-powered furnaces and alternative heating, cooking, and power sources used inappropriately indoors during power outages.

  • Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal¬ burning devices inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace or any partially enclosed area. Locate unit away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come indoors. Keep these devices at least 20 feet from doors, windows, and vents.
  • The primary hazards to avoid when using alternate sources for electricity, heating or cooking are carbon monoxide poisoning, electric shock and fire.
  • Install carbon monoxide alarms in central locations on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas to provide early warning of accumulating carbon monoxide.
  • If the carbon monoxide alarm sounds, move quickly to a fresh air location outdoors or by an open window or door.
  • Call for help from the fresh air location and remain there until emergency personnel arrive to assist you.

During Winter Storms and Extreme Cold

  • Stay indoors during the storm.
  • Walk carefully on snowy, icy, walkways.
  • Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow. Overexertion can bring on a heart attack—a major cause of death in the winter. Use caution, take breaks, push the snow instead of lifting it when possible, and lift lighter loads.
  • Keep dry. Change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat. Wet clothing loses all of its insulating value and transmits heat rapidly.
  • Signs of Frostbite: Occurs when the skin and body tissue just beneath it freezes. Loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities, such as fingers, toes, earlobes, face, and the tip of the nose.
    What to Do: Cover exposed skin, but do not rub the affected area in an attempt to warm it up. Seek medical help immediately.
  • Signs of Hypothermia: Dangerously low body temperature. Uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion.
    What to Do: If symptoms of hypothermia are detected take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95°, seek medical attention immediately. Get the victim to a warm location. Remove wet clothing. Warm the center of the body first by wrapping the person in blankets or putting on dry clothing. Give warm, non-alcoholic beverages if the victim is conscious. Seek medical help immediately.
    • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends, if you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance.
  • Drive only if it is absolutely necessary. If you must drive: travel in the day; don’t travel alone; keep others informed of your schedule; stay on main roads and avoid back road shortcuts.
  • Let someone know your destination, your route, and when you expect to arrive. If your car gets stuck along the way, help can be sent along your predetermined route.
  • If the pipes freeze, remove any insulation or layers of newspapers and wrap pipes in rags. Completely open all faucets and pour hot water over the pipes, starting where they were most exposed to the cold (or where the cold was most likely to penetrate).
  • Maintain ventilation when using kerosene heaters to avoid build-up of toxic fumes. Refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet from flammable objects.
  • Conserve fuel, if necessary, by keeping your residence cooler than normal. Temporarily close off heat to some rooms.
  • If you will be going away during cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, set to a temperature no lower than 55ºF.
Stay or Go


  • If stuck on the road to avoid exposure and/or rescue is likely
  • If a safe location is neither nearby or visible
  • If you do not have appropriate clothing to go outside
  • If you do not have the ability to call for help


      • If the distance to call for help is accessible.
      • If you have visibility and outside conditions are safe.
      • If you have appropriate clothing.
      • Once the storm has passed, if you are not already home, follow instructions from your local transportation department and emergency management agency to determine which route will be safest for you to get home. Drive with extra caution.
    Dress for the Weather
    • If you must go outside, wear several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing rather than one layer of heavy clothing. The outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent.
    • Wear mittens, which are warmer than gloves.
    • Wear a hat. A hat will prevent loss of body heat.
    • Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs.
    Stranded in a Vehicle

    If a blizzard traps you in the car:

    • Pull off the highway. Turn on hazard lights 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 10 minutes each hour to keep warm. When the engine is running, open a downwind window slightly for ventilation and periodically clear snow from the exhaust pipe. This will protect you from possible carbon monoxide poisoning.
    • 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 for rescue crews.
    • Eat regularly and drink ample fluids to avoid dehydration, but avoid caffeine and alcohol.
    • Be careful not to waste battery power. Balance electrical energy needs - the use of lights, heat, and radio - with supply.
    • Turn on the inside light at night so work crews or rescuers can see you.
    • If stranded in a remote area, stomp large block letters in an open area spelling out HELP or SOS and line with rocks or tree limbs to attract the attention of rescue personnel who may be surveying the area by airplane.
    • Leave the car and proceed on foot - if necessary - once the blizzard passes.

    After Winter Storms and Extreme Cold

    • If your home loses power or heat for more than a few hours or if you do not have adequate supplies to stay warm in your home overnight, you may want to go to a designated public shelter if you can get there safely. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (e.g., SHELTER20472)
    • Bring any personal items that you would need to spend the night (such as toiletries, medicines). Take precautions when traveling to the shelter. Dress warmly in layers, wear boots, mittens, and a hat.
    • Continue to protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia by wearing warm, loose-fitting, lightweight clothing in several layers. Stay indoors, if possible.

    Learn From Every Storm

    Restock your emergency supplies to be ready in case another storm hits.

    • Assess how well your supplies and family plan worked. What could you have done better?
    • Take a few minutes to improve your family plan and supplies before the next winter storm hits.
    • Talk to your neighbors and colleagues about their experiences and share tips with each other

    The following resources and websites can help you further prepare for, respond to, and recover from a winter storm.


    National Weather Service

    If you require more information about any of these topics, the following resources may be helpful.

    • Winter Storms…The Deceptive Killers. Brochure packed with useful information including winter storm facts, how to detect frostbite and hypothermia, what to do in a winter storm and how to be prepared. Available online at:

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Related Websites

    Find additional information on how to plan and prepare for a winter storm and learn about available resources by visiting the following websites:

    Listen to Local Officials

    Learn about the emergency plans that have been established in your area by your state and local government. In any emergency, always listen to the instructions given by local emergency management officials.

    Lightning storm at night

    All thunderstorms are dangerous. Every thunderstorm produces lightning. While lightning fatalities have decreased over the past 30 years, lightning continues to be one of the top three storm-related killers in the United States. On average in the U.S., lightning kills 51 people and injures hundreds more. Although most lightning victims survive, people struck by lightning often report a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms.

    Other associated dangers of thunderstorms include tornadoes, strong winds, hail and flash flooding. Flash flooding is responsible for more fatalities – more than 140 annually – than any other thunderstorm-associated hazard. Dry thunderstorms that do not produce rain that reaches the ground are most prevalent in the western United States. Falling raindrops evaporate, but lightning can still reach the ground and can start wildfires.

    Before Thunderstorm and Lightning

    To prepare for a thunderstorm, you should do the following:

    • To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.
    • Remove dead or rotting trees and branches that could fall and cause injury or damage during a severe thunderstorm.
    • Postpone outdoor activities.
    • Secure outdoor objects that could blow away or cause damage.
    • Get inside a home, building, or hard top automobile (not a convertible). Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.
    • Remember, rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide NO protection from lightning. However, the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you are not touching metal.
    • Shutter windows and secure outside doors. If shutters are not available, close window blinds, shades or curtains.
    • Unplug any electronic equipment well before the storm arrives.
    Lightning Risk Reduction When Outdoors
    If you are:Then:
    In a forestSeek shelter in a low area under a thick growth of small trees.
    In an open areaGo to a low place such as a ravine or valley. Be alert for flash floods.
    On open waterGet to land and find shelter immediately.
    Facts about Thunderstorms
    • They may occur singly, in clusters or in lines.
    • Some of the most severe occur when a single thunderstorm affects one location for an extended time.
    • Thunderstorms typically produce heavy rain for a brief period, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
    • Warm, humid conditions are highly favorable for thunderstorm development.
    • About 10 percent of thunderstorms are classified as severe – one that produces hail at least an inch or larger in diameter, has winds of 58 miles per hour or higher or produces a tornado.
    Facts about Lightning
    • Lightning’s unpredictability increases the risk to individuals and property.
    • Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall.
    • “Heat lightning” is actually lightning from a thunderstorm too far away from thunder to be heard. However, the storm may be moving in your direction.
    • Most lightning deaths and injuries occur when people are caught outdoors in the summer months during the afternoon and evening.
    • Your chances of being struck by lightning are estimated to be 1 in 600,000 but could be reduced even further by following safety precautions.
    • Lightning strike victims carry no electrical charge and should be attended to immediately.
    Know the Terms

    Familiarize yourself with these terms to help identify a thunderstorm hazard:

    Severe Thunderstorm Watch - Tells you when and where severe thunderstorms are likely to occur. Watch the sky and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio or television for information.

    Severe Thunderstorm Warning - Issued when severe weather has been reported by spotters or indicated by radar. Warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property to those in the path of the storm.


    During Thunderstorms and Lightning

    If thunderstorm and lightning are occurring in your area, you should:

    • Use your battery-operated NOAA Weather Radio for updates from local officials.
    • Avoid contact with corded phones and devices including those plugged into electric for recharging.  Cordless and wireless phones not connected to wall outlets are OK to use.
    • Avoid contact with electrical equipment or cords. Unplug appliances and other electrical items such as computers and turn off air conditioners. Power surges from lightning can cause serious damage.
    • Avoid contact with plumbing. Do not wash your hands, do not take a shower, do not wash dishes, and do not do laundry. Plumbing and bathroom fixtures can conduct electricity.
    • Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
    • Do not lie on concrete floors and do not lean against concrete walls.
    • Avoid natural lightning rods such as a tall, isolated tree in an open area.
    • Avoid hilltops, open fields, the beach or a boat on the water.
    • Take shelter in a sturdy building. Avoid isolated sheds or other small structures in open areas.
    • Avoid contact with anything metal—tractors, farm equipment, motorcycles, golf carts, golf clubs, and bicycles.
    • If you are driving, try to safely exit the roadway and park. Stay in the vehicle and turn on the emergency flashers until the heavy rain ends. Avoid touching metal or other surfaces that conduct electricity in and outside the vehicle.

    After a Thunderstorm or Lightning Strike

    If lightning strikes you or someone you know, call 9-1-1 for medical assistance as soon as possible. The following are things you should check when you attempt to give aid to a victim of lightning:

    • Breathing - if breathing has stopped, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
    • Heartbeat - if the heart has stopped, administer CPR.
    • Pulse - if the victim has a pulse and is breathing, look for other possible injuries. Check for burns where the lightning entered and left the body. Also be alert for nervous system damage, broken bones and loss of hearing and eyesight.

    After the storm passes remember to:

    • Never drive through a flooded roadway. Turn around, don’t drown!
    • Stay away from storm-damaged areas to keep from putting yourself at risk from the effects of severe thunderstorms.
    • Continue to listen to a NOAA Weather Radio or to local radio and television stations for updated information or instructions, as access to roads or some parts of the community may be blocked.
    • Help people who may require special assistance, such as infants, children and the elderly or those with access or functional needs.
    • Stay away from downed power lines and report them immediately.
    • Watch your animals closely. Keep them under your direct control.


    FEMA and National Weather Service

    If you require more information about any of these topics, the following resources may be helpful.

    Related Websites

    Find additional information on how to plan and prepare for a thunderstorm and learn about available resources by visiting the following websites:

    Listen to Local Officials

    Learn about the emergency plans that have been established in your area by your state and local government. In any emergency, always listen to the instructions given by local emergency management officials.

    Flood waters rising in a neighborhood of houses

    This page explains what actions to take when you receive a flood watch or warning alert from the National Weather Service for your local area and what to do before, during, and after a flood.

    Basic Safety Tips

    • Turn Around, Don’t Drown! ®
    • Avoid walking or driving through flood waters.
    • Just 6 inches of moving water can knock you down, and 2 feet of water can sweep your vehicle away.
    • If there is a chance of flash flooding, move immediately to higher ground. Flash floods are the #1 cause of weather-related deaths in the US.
    • If floodwaters rise around your car but the water is not moving, abandon the car and move to higher ground. Do not leave the car and enter moving water.
    • Avoid camping or parking along streams, rivers, and creeks during heavy rainfall. These areas can flood quickly and with little warning.

    Flood watch

    Flood Watch = “Be Aware.” Conditions are right for flooding to occur in your area.

    Steps to Take

    • Turn on your TV/radio. You will receive the latest weather updates and emergency instructions.
    • Know where to go. You may need to reach higher ground quickly and on foot.
    • Build or restock your emergency preparedness kit. Include a flashlight, batteries, cash, and first aid supplies.

    Prepare Your Home

    • Bring in outdoor furniture and move important indoor items to the highest possible floor. This will help protect them from flood damage.
    • Disconnect electrical appliances and don not touch electrical equipment if you are wet or standing in water. You could be electrocuted.
    • If instructed, turn off your gas and electricity at the main switch or valve. This helps prevent fires and explosions.

    Flood warning

    Flood Warning = "Take Action!"  Flooding is either happening or will happen shortly.

    Steps to Take

    • Move immediately to higher ground or stay on high ground.
    • Evacuate if directed.
    • Avoid walking or driving through flood waters. Turn Around, Don’t Drown! Just 6 inches of moving water can knock you down and 2 feet of water can sweep your vehicle away.

    After a flood

    • Return home only when authorities say it is safe.
    • Be aware of areas where floodwaters have receded and watch out for debris. Floodwaters often erode roads and walkways.
    • Do not attempt to drive through areas that are still flooded.
    • Avoid standing water as it may be electrically charged from underground or downed power lines.
    • Photograph damage to your property for insurance purposes.

    When it is not flooding: Make a flood plan

    • Know your flood risk.
    • Make a flood emergency plan.
    • Build or restock your emergency preparedness kit, including a flashlight, batteries, cash, and first aid supplies.
    • Consider buying flood insurance.
    • Familiarize yourself with local emergency plans. Know where to go and how to get there should you need to get to higher ground, the highest level of a building, or to evacuate.
    • Stay tuned to your phone alerts, TV, or radio for weather updates, emergency instructions, or evacuation orders.

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    Last updated: 08/30/2012 - 05:29 PM