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How to Survive an Ice Storm

Northern NY is in the middle of a bad ice storm right now, and we’ve got a “state of emergency” declaration from local and state governments. People often get confused about what they need to do to stay safe during an ice storm, so here’s a quick reference.

Don’t panic

For most people, ice storms don’t present unavoidable safety risks as long as you follow the rules. The big hazards actually caused by ice storms usually come from traveling and from falling ice (or falling trees with ice on them), but the injuries tend to come from people making bad decisions in a hurry.

We had a huge ice storm in 1998 that left much of the North Country without power for 7-30 days. If I recall correctly, there were four deaths in the whole county: one out-of-town electrical worker who died in a bucket truck accident; one person who died accidentally by falling down stairs; and two people who died from unvented fumes from generators.

Few bad things that happen in ice storms pose genuine immediate emergencies—most of the ones that do involve fires in some way. If stuff isn’t on fire, stop and think before taking action. Bad decisions hurt way more people than ice does.

Stay off the roads!

If there’s a travel ban, that means it’s against the law to drive in non-emergency conditions.  Respect this—it’s there for a reason. In 1998, we had huge problems with people trying to drive and getting stuck or getting into accidents.

This is bad for two reasons: one, once you’re stuck or hurt, you now need scarce emergency services to help you; and two, emergency vehicles often can’t get past your damaged car to deal with things like fires.

In any case, you should stay off the roads because it’s the law. In a state of emergency that bans travel, you’re guilty of a class B misdemeanor if you’re found driving (N.Y. EXC. LAW § 24). That carries a sentence of up to three months of jail time. Stay off the road!

If you absolutely must travel because of an emergency, call 911 and ask for help. They may be able to send an emergency vehicle that will be safer and faster.

Beware of fumes and fuel from engines, heaters, candles, and generators

Two of the four deaths in our county in 1998’s storm happened because of people running generators that weren’t properly ventilated, whether running them indoors or inside closed garages. Generators go outdoors.

Many people rely on flames for heating (kerosene heaters), light (lanterns and candles), and cooking (camp stoves) during ice storms and power outages. That’s fine, but you need to ventilate to get rid of fumes. No ventilation? Don’t use them.

If you’re using things that burn liquid fuel (gasoline, kerosene, white gas, etc.), refuel outside.

Finally, if you’re using flame-based tools, keep them away from fabrics and things that can burn. Ceramic plates or aluminum pie plates make good bases for candles, but battery-powered lights are a far better choice.

Don’t use a generator unless you already know how

Every time there’s a major power outage that lasts a long time, people with generators decide to hook up the generators to their house electrical systems, and then electrical line workers get hurt because the power flows back out onto the grid.

The rule here is simple: if your generator is not already set up and wired into your home electrical system before the ice storm begins, don’t connect it. Plug appliances into it directly and don’t wire it into your house system.

Also, remember that you may not actually need electrical power as much as you think. Prioritize things like refrigerators and freezers, and use battery-powered lights.

Watch for power issues

Stay away from downed wires. If you see downed electrical wires, report them to your electrical provider or National Grid (800-867-5222). If you see someone being hurt by electrical wires, don’t touch them–call 911. Don’t touch wires, and don’t drive over them either—there are reports of people being shocked from driving over downed wires.

Be careful moving around your house. If the power’s out, move more slowly (if it’s dark) and just be a little more cautious than usual.

Rely on blankets and warm clothing for heat. Fireplaces aren’t very efficient, so you may be better off keeping the rooms cold and wearing warm clothes and blankets. Ice storms usually don’t happen during seriously cold weather, so the need for heat isn’t usually an immediate threat to life or property.

Put light sources where you can find them easily. Find light sources (flashlights, headlamps, lanterns, then candles—go for fireproof first) and set them out so that you don’t have to rummage for them. Bring any lit candles with you when you move from room to room.

Conserve water and avoid flushing toilets unnecessarily. If you’re not on municipal water, you may not have running water once the power goes out. Fill some bowls or bottles with clean water for drinking, and consider filling your bathtub with water for washing and flushing.

Food safety

Don’t open fridges and freezers unnecessarily. Keep the cold air inside as long as possible! If you have a fridge thermometer, check it whenever you open the fridge and consider throwing out food if the temperature rises above 50 degrees.

Set ice cubes in a bowl on top of the food in your freezer. Frozen food needs to stay cold to stay safe, but how do you know that it didn’t rise in temperature? Stick some ice cubes in bowl on top of the food. If the ice cubes still look like cubes when the power comes back on, you’re good. If they’ve melted, toss the food.

Remember to care for pets. If you’re responsible for feeding and taking care of animals, find a way to keep doing it during the ice storm.

Remove ice from exterior surfaces if you can do so safely

If it’s possible to do it safely, during daylight hours, consider working to remove some of the ice from trees and roofs. This can be dangerous, so I’m not going to talk much about how to go about doing it, but basic things:

  • Don’t stand where falling ice can hit you.
  • Seek firm and stable footing, and if it’s not available, stop.
  • Be aware that trees, once released from ice, can straighten up suddenly, hitting you.
  • Keep an eye out for downed power lines.

Check on neighbors

This is an important community piece, especially if you live near older folks or people with physical disabilities. Call your neighbors to check in and make sure people are doing okay. Once the power’s back on and things return to normal, check in again—a lot of people get sick from eating food that went bad during power outages, and they don’t necessarily notice.

If people need emergency shelter, call 911 and ask the dispatcher for the location of the closest open shelter. They’ll connect you with people who know the answer.

Remember, first and foremost: don’t panic!

(thanks to Steve and Karen Easter for helping me to prepare this list and reminding me of some things we learned during the Ice Storm of 1998)

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2 thoughts on “How to Survive an Ice Storm

  1. Fantastic post!

    To this I’ll add (from the school of hard knocks…): if your house has gutters and downspouts, after the storm is over make sure that the bottom of the downspout is not underneath a bunch of snow or ice, and that the bottom of the downspout is not plugged with ice.

    If you have a plugged downspout because it can’t drain, soon your entire downspout will fill with ice, your gutter will fill with ice, and whatever snow / ice is on your roof will sit there thawing and re-freezing for ages, potentially causing damage to your roof and house.

    If your downspout is plugged with ice, you may be able to heat the downspout by pouring hot water on it (be careful pouring hot water); and you may be able to shake loose chunks of ice once they’ve started melting a bit by carefully rapping on the downspout with, say, a wooden baseball bat. Don’t use a plastic ice scraper (it will break); don’t use your foot (you may slip on ice and fall).

    Mostly, don’t be stupid. And stand back: when you do get the downspout unplugged, A LOT of ice chunks will come out, and it will be a bit like winning on a Vegas slots machine (noises and all). Then your roof and house will be much happier.

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