How to Respond During a Winter Storm
Many parts of the country experienced the polar vortex last month, demonstrating the impact that extreme cold can have on our country. For the past several months, Benefits.gov has provided helpful information on how to prepare your car and how to save energy in your home when winter strikes. This month, we will conclude our mini-series on winter preparations by focusing on the steps you can take during and after a winter disaster strikes your area.

Before a storm occurs, weather services will use different terms to help inform people about what to expect. Make sure you know the difference between the following terms, defined by the American Red Cross, so you can understand what lies ahead:

  • Winter Storm Outlook - Winter storm conditions are possible in the next 2 to 5 days.
  • Winter Weather Advisory - Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. These situations should not be life threatening.
  • Winter Storm Watch - Winter storm conditions are possible within the next 36 to 48 hours. People should stay informed about weather conditions.
  • Winter Storm Warning - Life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours. People should take precautions immediately.
If you know someone who doesn't have access to a TV or the Internet, or you lose power to your home during a storm, you can access the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) 24 hour a day/7 day a week NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) network across the country. To find a local station, you can use NOAA's NWR Coverage Map.

The Red Cross offers these important tips for what to do when a severe winter storm occurs:

  • Bring pets/companion animals inside during winter weather.
  • Running water, even at a trickle, helps prevent pipes from freezing
  • Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.
  • Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing.
  • Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night. By temporarily suspending the use of lower nighttime temperatures, you may incur a higher heating bill, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if pipes freeze and burst.
  • Go to a designated public shelter if your home loses power or heat during periods of extreme cold.
  • Protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia by wearing warm, loose-fitting, lightweight clothing in several layers. Stay indoors, if possible.
Carbon Monoxide can be a serious hazard as people try to remain warm while using generators. Remember that you should 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. When placing these items outside, be sure to locate them away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come indoors. If your carbon monoxide alarm sounds, move quickly to a fresh air location outdoors or by an open window or door.

DisasterAssistance.gov offers additional information on how to prepare for severe storms, including how to make the decision to Evacuate or Stay Put, making sure you have access to Emergency Food and Water, and some basic tips on how to care for injuries if emergency medical help is not available.

Most cities offer hotlines in case you see a homeless person outside during a severe winter storm that needs assistance. In many cities the phone number is 211 or 311, but you should check your local community listings to see what number works best for your area.

You can also take the confidential questionnaire on DisasterAssistance.gov to help you find and apply for the disaster assistance you may need in the event that a disaster strikes your area. Benefits.gov, DisasterAssistance.gov, and our entire Federal agency Partnership wish you a safe and enjoyable winter season.