Ice Storm Preparedness Guide

FOREWORD

The following list of practical suggestions and hints on Ice Storm Preparedness was generated by me just before and after a significant ice storm in the Washington, DC area in February of 2007. An effort was made to avoid the usual hints that are offered by the mass media, such as getting a stock of cash, gassing your vehicles, buying non-perishable foods and water, and having plenty of fresh batteries for flashlights and radios, etc., except that (where appropriate) some additional commentary is provided on those standard hints.

Although there are numerous web resources concerning winter weather preparedness, there is surprisingly little that is dedicated to the subject of ice storms. For some web resources that cover all of the most or all of the standard hints, see:

http://www.state.il.us/iema/disaster/pdf/iema333_winter_storm_preparedness_guidebook.pdf (Needs to be updated)

http://www.cdc.gov/nasd/docs/d001401-d001500/d001477/d001477.html (Needs to be updated)

http://www.weather.gov/os/winterstorm/winterstorms.pdf

Remember, the following complements and supplements the above lists; it does not replace them.

THE NATURE AND GREATER IMPACT OF ICE STORMS

Probably the most important thing to keep in mind is that a major ice storm is not just another big winter storm. The primary reasons why being the high exposure of the area’s power lines and the large degree of forestation in the area, and the impact that icing has on those lines and trees – far greater than any snowstorm. Some of you may remember the scenes of the massive ice storm in Ontario and upstate New York and New England around 2000, where even the huge transmission towers collapsed like spaghetti, and entire forests were nearly wiped out. A major ice storm is like a combination of a major blizzard and Hurricane Isabel with respect to the disruption and damage it inflicts. THAT LAST SENTENCE IS WORTH RE-READING.

However, although this area has had some bad ice storms over the past 30 years, fortunately we have not faced anything like what is described above. Nonetheless, the worst of the storms we have experienced have still had major impacts on the local power and transportation grids. In the event of a significant ice storm here in Arlington, power outages and impassable side-streets can be anticipated to last for 2 or 3 days. The longer the duration of the storm (that is, more icing) and nature of the follow-up weather (especially high winds and very cold temperatures) can extend the problems out to a week or longer. In the last major ice storm in this area (in the late 1990’s), some areas of Montgomery County were without power for over 2 weeks.

Short of a truly catastrophic event, none of the inner suburbs are likely to face week-long power outages. Nonetheless, you need to prepare IN ADVANCE, and not just react during and after the storm, in order to reduce the impact of a major ice storm on your family. The following information is provided as common sense pointers for those who weren’t here during the last major ice storm, or reminders for those who have forgotten. The hints are particularly important if your home routinely loses power in summertime or wintertime storms – if it does, you can be virtually certain that you WILL lose power during a major ice-storm, and probably for an extended period.

BEFORE THE STORM ARRIVES

Mutual Assistance Agreements

In *addition* to your formal preparations, it’s an excellent idea to set up some “mutual assistance agreements” with friends and relatives that live in other neighborhoods. It is routine for some areas in Arlington to have power, while others are in the dark. There’s no need to suffer if you can go to a friend or relative who has power. And of course, they may need to come to you!

However, having one or more “mutual assistance agreements” will not help you if everyone is without power – so don’t neglect your preparations thinking that all you’ll have to do is drive a mile to a friend’s or relative’s house.

Home and General Preparedness

Electricity

If your home HAS to have at least some electrical power (for example, if you have a sewage ejection system, or a sump pump for a perpetually wet basement), get:
• A quality generator;
• A good supply of gasoline; and
• Several heavy-duty, 100 foot long extension cords.

Really, if you have to have electrical power for these or any other critical need, you should already have these items. And if you don’t, you should get them soon. Remember, it’s all but impossible to buy a generator or a battery backup when a big ice storm is approaching; plan accordingly.

Know how to run power to JUST the critical item(s) – they cannot be still hooked up to the rest of the house wiring, or your generator will try to run your entire house; this may kill the generator and may damage many of your appliances. A sump pump usually is just plugged into a wall outlet, and so can just be plugged into the generator. But a sewage ejection system is usually hard wired – if it is, you should have an electrician put in a cutoff switch to the house wiring and install a plug in that can be hooked up independently to a generator. This is something you can and should do well before you have any storms approaching.

VERY IMPORTANT: Remember that any generators have to be set up OUTSIDE, and preferably downwind of your house, to avoid killing yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning (generators set up inside houses killed at least half-a-dozen people in this area during and after Hurricane Isabel). Remember that generators are also highly prized items during emergencies, so get:
• A heavy chain and lock to secure yours to something immovable; and
• Keep your gas cans secure, too.

Another piece of emergency electrical equipment that is worthwhile to have is a power inverter that can be plugged into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter to produce 110v power, adequate for running a battery charger for cell phones and (more importantly) other rechargeable batteries.

Securing Items from Potential Danger/Damage

Even if you have a generator, if you have a wet basement that is controlled by a sump pump, move items upstairs BEFORE you need to – don’t wait til it’s an all-hands panic. The last thing you need is to have your family sloshing around in 20 inches of icy cold water, in a house with no heat.

If you have trees or limbs that are clearly threatening your house, vehicles, or power/phone lines, get them removed AHEAD OF TIME. You can probably get emergency tree service right up to the day before an ice storm – afterwards, you can spend weeks waiting for service, and regretting your decision to let a known problem situation sit, when you could and should have done something about it.

If you have a driveway or a garage (with some room in it), move your vehicles off the street. It is routine for parked vehicles to be hit during ice storms by drivers who cannot control their vehicles. This is particularly important if you live near the bottom of a hill or on a curve.

Communications

Charge ALL your cell phone(s) up all the way, and if you’re using them re-charge them at regular intervals. If you have a spare battery pack for your phone, charge it up as well. Alternately, as suggested above, if you don’t have one already, get a cell phone charger for your phone(s) that works off your car’s cigarette lighter.

Sign up for R-SAN (the Arlington Community Alert System: http://www.arlingtonalert.com [For those who aren’t familiar, this system sends messages to any text messaging devices – cell phones, blackberries, e-mail, pagers and palm pilots.] Alternately, get a small battery powered TV (but be very sparing in using it).

Also consider purchasing a NOAA Weather Radio with Specific Area Message Encoding (S.A.M.E.) capability. This can be programmed for our region and provides emergency warnings for many types of emergencies, not just weather. [For additional information, see: http://www.weather.gov/nwr/nwrsame.htm]

Heating and Fire Safety

If you have a fireplace and a stack of firewood, bring a full three-day supply (which is a LOT of wood!) to an adjacent covered outside area (carport or detached/unheated garage). If you don’t have a protected area, put it near an exterior door and cover it with a heavy, waterproof tarp. Do NOT bring it inside – bugs will emerge as it warms up, and they will be happy to add a little extra company – and misery – to your home. Note that it is important to move and cover the firewood IN ADVANCE, while it is still clean and dry – firewood that’s already soaked and coated with half an inch of ice burns very poorly, even if it’s “seasoned”.

Next, if you’re planning to heat your home with fires, or light it with candles or oil lamps, in the event of a power failure, be sure to install fresh batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Then test them to make sure they’re operating. In addition and VERY IMPORTANT! – Place your fire extinguishers in or near your common area.

Inspect your flue, and if necessary have it cleaned – a fire inside your chimney could be a catastrophic event, especially in icing conditions that may delay or even prevent the Fire Department from reaching you.

Warning: During a power outage, DO NOT use the fireplace to burn charcoal for heat or for cooking. Even with an open flue, charcoal emits carbon monoxide at high/very dangerous levels.

In addition, if you use oil lamps or candles with glass globes, keep the surrounding area clear of flammables, as the globe will become extremely hot. Furthermore, these items should be table-top level – NOT on mantles or tall pieces of furniture – as they can generate enough heat to ignite a ceiling.

Organization

Locate and assemble in appropriate common areas all the items you’ll need if/when the power goes out – matches, reliable butane lighters, flashlights, fresh batteries, spare flashlight bulbs, chemical “light-sticks,” battery powered radio, spare cell phone batteries, mechanical can openers, electrical generator, power cords, all fuels (regular gasoline (for the generator), kerosene, propane, white gas, lamp oil, etc.), fuel-powered appliances, sleeping bags and other appropriate camping gear, cold-weather gear (ski clothing, etc.), critical medications, car keys, a list of critical phone numbers for friends and relatives, and so on. Don’t be caught trying to find these things by flashlight after the power goes out.

Computers, Answering Machines, and other Sensitive Electronics

Ice-storms can cause lots of power fluctuations and/or off-on-off surges well before the power finally quits for good. This can be fatal for your computer and other sensitive electronic devices. As a specific precaution for computers, if you haven’t backed up your computer files in forever, do so before the storm arrives. If you have a battery backup for your computer, disconnect everything except the CPU and the monitor (and if necessary, the router) – this way, if the power is off but the phone lines are still working, you can turn your computer on briefly once a day to check on the world, without having all your ancillary equipment (printers, scanners, etc.) kill off your power-pack).

Personal Cleanliness

• Do all your laundry in advance (it may be your last opportunity for awhile).
• Take showers as the storm approaches (Ditto).

If You’re Going to Work as the Storm is Approaching

If you have to go to work the day the storm is arriving, pre-arrange the use of annual leave with your boss, and an “automatic departure” as soon as *you* feel the need. Keep an eye on weather.com (or an equivalent service), and listen to WTOP. Leave work as soon as freezing rain is reported in the any of the outlying suburbs (for example, Culpeper, Warrenton, and Leesburg) – don’t wait until Arlington is already icing up, and the interstates and local road systems are already becoming gridlocked. If past experience is any indicator, quite often the federal, state, and local governments and local businesses will not close until the traffic is already a complete disaster. Use of 2 or 3 hours of annual leave is a lot smarter than spending 8 hours going 12 miles – or worse, not getting home at all. Finally, remember that Metro routinely shuts down its outside rail-lines as soon as they ice up – don’t count on it to get you home, unless your entire route is underground.

If You’re Going to Work and You Can’t Leave Early

If you have an lengthy commute, have to go to work, and can’t leave early, first consider leaving your vehicle at a Metro parking lot and using Metro and/or other mass transit to get to and from work from that Metro stop. A one or two mile trip from the East Falls Church Metro Station is a lot easier than 17 miles from Greenbelt. If this isn’t possible or practical, prepare to be stuck in traffic for an extended period:

• Make sure your vehicle is fully gassed up, both for improved traction and as a reserve to keep you warm in case you’re stuck in place for a long period of time.
• Fill your windshield washer fluid reservoir(s) with quality fluid (not water) – with the excessive use of salt and liquid de-icer on the roads these days, you will use a large amount of fluid during and after any winter weather event.
• Have a metal shovel (spade or coal shovel), a sturdy ice scraper, and a bag of sand or salt.
• Have a charged cell phone, a cell phone recharger that works off your cigarette lighter (or a power inverter that works off the cigarette lighter to produce 110v AC), snacks, stuff to drink, winter clothes, a warm blanket or sleeping bag, boots with good tread,* a detailed (ADC) map of the area, a couple of chemical “light-sticks,” and a good flashlight (with fresh batteries installed) in the vehicle, all in case you have to leave your vehicle and walk to shelter. [* Note that temporary shoe “chains” that attach via heavy-duty rubber bands are available and provide enough traction to keep your head up and feet down.]

If this sounds silly, note that we have had tens of thousands of vehicles abandoned on local interstates and roadways during past major winter storms. And in the ice storm that just passed us (Valentine’s Day, 2007), several thousand people were stuck in a 55-mile long parking lot on I-78 in eastern Pennsylvania – some were there for two days. Remember, even a Hummer with chains on is worthless when it’s trapped in place by two or three hundred other vehicles.

Listen to WTOP once you’re in your car – If your normal commuting route is already a gridlocked disaster, DON’T USE IT! – Use alternate routes that are still moving. If you don’t have any alternate routes planned out, it’s an excellent idea to figure out some sensible alternatives IN ADVANCE. If everything is a disaster, find a local hotel and get there while you still can. If even that option is impractical, stay at work. If you must abandon your vehicle to find shelter, it is the recommendation of numerous government websites to leave a dome light on, or leave a chemical light-stick on the rear-shelf, so that the vehicle is more visible to road and emergency crews. Finally, remember to keep your family informed of your situation.

Additional Vehicle Prep Hints

If your vehicle is parked outside, whether at home or at work, it’s an excellent idea to cover it with a heavy-duty tarp as the storm is approaching. The tarp should cover the roof, windows, and door locks, and can be held in place with 4 bungee cords. This way, the ice coats the tarp instead of your vehicle. Unless the ice fall is really thick, the tarp can usually be easily removed (Caution: Be careful not to scratch your paintwork by dragging the tarps’ metal grommets over it). 5 minutes of pre-storm work can save you 30 minutes of scraping – very valuable time if you’re at work and are trying to beat the traffic and storm home. If you haven’t got a tarp for this purpose, you can place cardboard over the front and back windshields, large trash bags over your side-windows, zip-lock or newspaper plastic bags over your side-mirrors, and pieces of electrical or duct tape over your key-locks. Not as effective as a tarp, but it works. Stop your car with the windshield wipers about halfway up, and use them to hold the cardboard in place. The trash bags can be held in place by rolling the windows up on them. The plastic bags on the mirrors can be tied or “zipped” into place, or held with large rubber bands.

Warning – If you were unable to cover your windshields, do not pour water (even cold water) on them or your windows to melt thick ice – although this seems like a clever solution, it is actually a classic mistake, and will almost certainly crack or even shatter the windshield or window. In general, you’re a lot better off letting your vehicle warm up to help get snow and ice off, versus trying to hack it off (it usually takes only about 20 – 30 minutes for your car’s defrosters and heaters to loosen up everything to the point where it can be easily removed).

Hint: If your key-locks do freeze up, a common trick is to (gently) heat your key with a butane lighter and quickly insert it and turn it to the unlock position; this usually works. So, it’s a good idea to have a butane lighter handy if your vehicle’s locks typically freeze up. “Handy” as in one of your coat pockets.

If you have a set of studded snow-tires stored in your garage, consider putting them on BEFORE the storm arrives. Similarly, if you have snow chains for your vehicle, get them out of wherever you have them stored, and review their installation instructions. If the forecast deteriorates to the point of a catastrophic event, consider putting them on at home or at work BEFORE the storm arrives – especially if your vehicle is parked outside (less urgent if you have a garage to do it in, including a garage at work). However, note that it’s illegal to drive with chains on before a Snow Emergency has been declared, so be rational on your timing. Note also that chains are far easier to put on with the vehicle jacked up, so if you can do that safely, it will help a lot. Have an old blanket in your car to lay on during installation – very helpful if you’re doing it outside, either in your driveway or at work. Thin work gloves are also very helpful – putting snow-chains on with bare hands is quite painful (believe me, I know). A pair of channel locks, a medium sized screwdriver, a set of clear goggles, and a good flashlight are also useful aids for installing snow-chains (the goggles are to prevent filthy water dripping off your undercarriage and into your eyes as you’re putting the chains on the insides of the tires – one of those little things they never warn you about in the instructions).

ONCE THE STORM ARRIVES

If you start noticing any power fluctuations, or if it’s really icing up quickly outside, turn off your computer(s) and other sensitive electronic devices.

First Steps If You Lose Power: Immediately close all curtains on windows and close off unused rooms – this will preserve what heat you have for a little longer (the better your house insulation and windows, the longer). Minimize opening your exterior doors. Also minimize opening your refrigerators and freezers (Note: Difficult to enforce with hungry, bored adolescents and teenagers in the house). If it’s really cold out, or if the power outage extends past one day, you should probably move your entire family to a common area to keep warm(er), at least for sleeping purposes – most families in such situations move to the room with the fireplace, or to an inner room or the basement if they have no fireplace. Also if it’s very cold out (less than 25 degrees), you should run all the water taps in the house at a steady drip rate, and instruct all family members to NOT turn off the taps – running them prevents your water pipes from freezing. Note that if you leave your house to stay with a friend or relative who has power, be sure to leave your taps running at a steady drip even though you’re not there.

Heating: Most families attempt to heat their home in some manner, with fireplaces (if you have one) being the obvious choice. Note that use of virtually any form of heater (except electrical) inside the house is usually a bad idea and potentially a fatal error. If you have no choice, be constantly vigilant against the buildup of carbon monoxide inside your house. If you run the burners on a gas stove for heat, crack a window in the kitchen for ventilation. If you use a kerosene or propane heater, crack multiple windows to ensure cross-ventilation. As noted above, if you use an electrical generator to run an electric heater, keep the generator *outside* and preferably downwind, chain-lock it to something immovable to prevent its theft, and keep your gasoline supply secure.

Room or House Lighting: For lighting, battery-powered lights and lanterns are by far the best choice. Avoid using gas or liquid fuel-powered lanterns and lights; again, these generate carbon monoxide and sometimes noxious, unpleasant fumes. Again, if you must use a gas or liquid fuel powered-lantern or light, again, be sure to keep a window cracked in the room where it is used. Liquid fuel lanterns, lights, heaters, and stoves should only be filled or re-filled OUTSIDE – never inside the house – and you need to be very vigilant against “spark sources” while pouring liquid fuels (cigarettes, electrical generators, running automobiles, gas or liquid fueled lanterns, and candles are all examples of “spark sources”). If you use candles for light, keep them secure with respect to small children and domestic pets, and DO NOT leave them unattended.

Fire Security: Under no circumstances should the entire household go to sleep with any flame source (candle, lantern, stove, or fireplace) still burning – either extinguish them, or (better) have adults or older teenagers tend them in 2 hour shifts, all night long. Note that the ONLY way to ensure that a “night guard” will not fall asleep is to have them stand and/or walk around during their entire shift (and they should not go to bed until their replacement is up on his or her feet).

Sleeping Arrangements, Flashlights, and Night-Lights: Using sleeping bags under the covers of your bed will be far warmer than just throwing additional blankets on top of yourself. Wearing knit hats, thermal underwear or pajamas, and loose-fitting, thick socks to bed also helps keep you warm. Every bed should have a flashlight within easy reach, and you should have a few other flashlights in strategic places (by exterior doors and in bathrooms are two such places). Note that an area-wide power failure, a thick cloud cover, and all your curtains drawn, means dark will be REALLY dark! If you want to have a “night-light”, use a chemical “light-stick” (good for one night) or a small LED light with a single bulb burning – the latter will last 1 – 2 weeks with fresh batteries, whereas a normal flashlight will burn out its batteries in one night.

Cleaning Up: Unless you absolutely have to, do not clear snow and ice off your vehicles, walks, and driveways until the storm is over (meaning no more freezing rain). Ice on top of snow is reasonably easy to break up and remove – ice glazed onto cleaned-off metal, glass, concrete, and macadam is difficult and in some cases nearly impossible to remove. In addition, note that plastic and metal snow-shovels are all but useless for clearing ice or ice-on-snow off sidewalks and driveways – only mattocks (broad-edge picks) and spade or coal shovels have any hope of removing ice and/or ice-on-snow from these surfaces.

If You Have to Drive in an Ice-Storm

If you have to drive on ice, drive like you have no brakes. As I warn the Scouts with drivers’ licenses, under no circumstances should you drive like they show on the ridiculous TV commercials (50 or 60 mph in 8 inches of snow, yeah right), or you will be the next guy rolled over in a ditch somewhere. Be very aware that there are thousands of idiots in the Washington area who truly believe that they CAN drive like this, because they’re driving some 4-wheel drive mega-SUV or luxury sedan with state-of-the-art tires, or because they’re just too stupid to know any better, or too arrogant to believe that the rules of either man or physics apply to them. Give yourself plenty of space, and be prepared to try and steer your way out of trouble if you have to stop but can’t – stomping on the brakes surrenders yourself to momentum and a probable crash – steering gives you at least some chance – remember, rolling friction is greater (better) than sliding friction. If you have to pick something to run into, sliding along a snowbank or guardrail is a lot better than running into a telephone pole, bridge abutment, or someone else’s vehicle. Obviously make sure both you and all passengers are properly seat-belted. Also make sure all your windows and mirrors are clear – avoid “porthole” driving. Be especially cautious on bridges and overpasses – remember, “Bridge Freezes Before Road Surfaces” (they’re not kidding!) If you’re car has a thermometer, be especially cautious between 30 and 35, and remember that a thick layer of ice with a thin layer of water on it (say at 34 degrees) is far more dangerous than the same ice at 28 degrees.

Warning: If you have studded snow tires or chains installed on your vehicle, be very aware that you will stop much faster than the vehicle behind you. So try to avoid stomping on the brakes, especially if people are tailgating you, or you will almost certainly be rear-ended.

Finally, be very cautious of “flying icebergs” – rock-hard sheets of ice and frozen snow that come off the tops of vehicles moving at high speed on the interstates. During the Valentines Day ice storm of 2007, this was a major problem, and several *hundred* vehicles had their windshields cracked or smashed in by debris coming off the vehicles in front of them. This problem usually lasts for several days – long after the actual storm is over. Be especially wary when traveling behind large SUVs, Vans, Buses, and Trucks. And of course, please clear your own vehicles of this hazard before driving.

In Summary, Be Prepared. I hope this helps.

– Dr. Bob, Scoutmaster, Troop 111
2007 Printing

– (With Editing and Suggestive Assistance by Jim and Kim Smith)

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