Question of the Week

January 22, 2007


Winter weather that has recently hit much of the country has been a challenge for many. Whatever the emergency, it can be easier to handle for someone who is prepared.

"A large section of the Plains, as well as areas of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico were recovering after a wave of storms over the weekend and Monday brought snow, ice and strong winds. Harsh, frigid conditions were blamed for at least 11 traffic fatalities in the Plains. ... Southern New Mexico picked up 9 inches on snow on Sunday and Monday, closing 145 miles of Interstate 25, the state's major north-south highway. ... Winter weather has also hit hard on the East Coast, bringing snow, sleet and freezing rain to Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland and making roads treacherous. ... On Sunday, officials closed a long stretch of Interstate 70, from near Denver International Airport almost to the Kansas state line because of high winds, blowing snow, poor visibility and ice. The road had reopened by Monday morning."

Roads were closed and motorists were stranded. While drivers can't prevent road closures, it is important for them to prepare themselves and their vehicles for winter travel.

"You can avoid many dangerous winter travel problems by planning ahead. Have maintenance service on your vehicle as often as the manufacturer recommends. In addition, every fall: Have the radiator system serviced, or check the antifreeze level yourself with an antifreeze tester. Add antifreeze, as needed. Replace windshield-wiper fluid with a wintertime mixture. Replace any worn tires, and check the air pressure in the tires. During winter, keep the gas tank near full to help avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines."

Once the mechanics of the car are taken care of, there is the matter of properly stocking it.

"Equip your car with these items: * blankets * first aid kit * a can and waterproof matches (to melt snow for water) * windshield scraper * booster cables * road maps * mobile phone * compass * tool kit * paper towels * bag of sand or cat litter (to pour on ice or snow for added traction) * tow rope * tire chains (in areas with heavy snow) * collapsible shovel * container of water and high-calorie canned or dried foods and a can opener * flashlight and extra batteries * canned compressed air with sealant (for emergency tire repair) * brightly colored cloth"

Even the most well prepared driver can get stuck in the worst of winter weather. What then?

"Staying in your vehicle when stranded is often the safest choice if winter storms create poor visibility or if roadways are ice covered. These steps will increase your safety when stranded: * Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna as a signal to rescuers and raise the hood of the car (if it is not snowing). * Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area. * Wrap your entire body, including your head, in extra clothing, blankets, or newspapers. * Stay awake. You will be less vulnerable to cold-related health problems. * Run the motor (and heater) for about 10 minutes per hour, opening one window slightly to let in air. Make sure that snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe--this will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. * As you sit, keep moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and stay warmer. * Do not eat unmelted snow because it will lower your body temperature. * Huddle with other people for warmth.

If driving conditions are too bad, it is often better to just stay home. Disaster preparedness is important in the home for more than just winter, but what one might want in the aftermath of a a summer tornado may have minor variations from what one might need to weather a winter storm. Either way, some of the "side effects" can be the same, like power outages...

"In Oklahoma, where an ice storm disrupted power to as many as 125,000 homes and businesses more than a week ago, about 17,000 electrical customers remained without power early Monday -- mostly in the eastern part of the state. Hundreds of utility linemen worked through the night in hopes of restoring power by Monday or today, authorities said. But for some rural customers, it could be at least another week before the electricity is back on."

Most people at one time have lost power in their homes. Most people are also not prepared to live without power for over a week in January weather and temperatures.

Warnings abound about what NOT to do so that you can avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Most of these guidelines apply to any season, though most people are not trying to heat their homes in the summer:

"* Don't use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning device inside your home, basement, or garage or near a window. * Don't run a car or truck inside a garage attached to your house, even if you leave the door open. * Don't burn anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't vented. * Don't heat your house with a gas oven."

It is clear what NOT to do, but there is still the question of what TO do in order to stay safe and healthy if there is a winter weather emergency where you live.

As mentioned before, the key is to plan ahead. This does not mean to start planning when the forecasters first announce that the storm is on its way (though if no plan is in place by this point, it would be good to start working on something), but the goal is to plan for the storm before there is even the mention that it may come.

The following guidelines (most, if not all) will be useful for anyone in any circumstance. They were specifically written for people with disabilities and special needs, but the main ideas with each point would be good for everyone to think about.

  1. "Know what kinds of disasters could happen in your area ...
  2. "Complete a personal assessment. ...
  3. "Create a personal support network ...
  4. "Make an emergency information list ...
  5. "Compile a medical information list ...
  6. "Keep at least a seven-day supply of medications on hand. ...
  7. "Install at least one smoke alarm on each level of your home ... Know the location of main utility cutoff valves and learn how and when to disconnect them during an emergency. Identify evacuation routes and safe places to go during a disaster. ...
  8. "Complete a summary checklist to make sure that your personal disaster plan is comprehensive...
  9. "Keep a disaster supply kit in your home, car, workplace or anywhere you may spend your time. ...
  10. "Make your home or office safer by checking hallways, stairwells, doorways, windows and other areas for hazards that may keep you from safely leaving a building during an emergency..."
(More details about each point can be found at the above link.)

Just as plan that each family creates will be different, the contents of the disaster supply kit that each family needs vary, as well. For everyone:

"Recommended Items to Include in a Basic Emergency Supply Kit:
  * Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  * Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
  * Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
  * Flashlight and extra batteries
  * First aid kit
  * Whistle to signal for help
  * Dust mask, to help filter contaminated air and plastic
sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
  * Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  * Wrench or pliers to turn off utilitiesv   * Can opener for food (if kit contains canned food)
  * Local maps"

For those with unique (or not so unique) additional needs:

"Additional Items to Consider Adding to an Emergency Supply Kit:
  * Prescription medications and glasses
  * Infant formula and diapers
  * Pet food and extra water for your pet
  * Important family documents ...
  * Cash or traveler's checks and change
  * Emergency reference material such as a first aid book...
  * Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person. ...
  * Complete change of clothing including a long sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy shoes. ...
  * Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper --
     -- When diluted nine parts water to one part bleach, bleach can be used as a disinfectant. ...
  * Fire Extinguisher
  * Matches in a waterproof container
  * Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  * Mess kits, paper cups, plates and plastic utensils, paper towels
  * Paper and pencil
  * Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children"

People can prepare their homes and their cars for any situation, but much of our waking day is typically spent at work or school.

"You may also want to inquire about emergency plans at places where your family spends time: work, daycare and school. If no plans exist, consider volunteering to help create one. Talk to your neighbors about how you can work together in the event of an emergency. You will be better prepared to safely reunite your family and loved ones during an emergency if you think ahead and communicate with others in advance."

Questions of the Week:
What preparation steps should you take to be ready for winter weather where you live and travel? What winter weather hazards are an issue normally? What unexpected situations should you prepare for "just in case"? How might these preparations be different from someone who lives in a different part of the country? How might they be the same? How do winter preparations differ from those for other times of year? What preparations are a good idea no matter what the season?

What emergency preparedness plans are not in your control because they are taken care of by your parents, or someone else at your work or school? How can you help make sure these plans will meet your needs and the needs of the others who might be in that location during an emergency? How might the needs of different people vary during an emergency? How can a general emergency plan meet all of these needs?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions. Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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