Buffalo, NY gets its fair share of extreme winter weather every year, but the catastrophic, unrelenting nature of a late December storm knocked the region to its knees as the Christmas weekend kicked off. Rochester’s location further out from Lake Erie spared us from massive snow accumulations, but not from high winds, deep chill, and power outages. But who’s to say we will be spared by the next one? Now that we’ve seen the devastating impact of a Bomb Cyclone, what can we learn from Buffalo’s experience so that we can be better prepared?
No stranger to severe winter weather, even Buffalo couldn’t weather this storm. According to the Washington Post, several factors came into account making the storm deadlier than most:
- Residents of Buffalo are desensitized to extreme weather, but the storm was a once-in-a-lifetime, uncharacteristically intense Bomb Cyclone.
- The storm occurred on the last payday before Christmas, a day many were counting on to shop for the holiday.
- A travel ban in Erie County was not announced until just before 9 am, after the morning rush. Many did not heed the advisory already in effect. The storm picked up rapidly only 40 minutes after the ban was issued leaving many stranded.
- Roads became impassable and emergency services could not reach people who needed help.
Preparing for winter involves some levels of emergency preparedness - we know to keep our ice scrapers accessible in our cars, the gas tank always filled above the halfway mark, we keep baskets of hats and gloves by the door, and a bucket of rock salt at the ready. Many of the steps you may have already taken - improving insulation, sealing windows, and annual HVAC maintenance - will help keep the heat in should temperatures drop and/or the power goes out. But there are further steps we can take to ensure the safety of ourselves and our families in the event of a true winter weather emergency. Looking at Buffalo, we not only must be prepared for extended power outages but should also have a plan for handling insufficient emergency response resources, travel bans, and impassable roads - for cars and pedestrians.
One Major Takeaway
We saw in real-time just how imperative it is to heed travel advisories ahead of a storm. Advisories are precursors to an all-out ban that allows emergency personnel, hospital workers, and other frontline workers to get to their jobs safely. We want these folks to safely get to their places of employment so that the people we know and love can be tended to if they require emergency assistance. There is also the matter of chronic patients needing care, babies to be born, nursing home residents to care for, and so many others. Avoiding travel during an advisory allows frontline workers to get to their stations and workers coming off a long shift to get home safely.
Heed the advisories. They are not merely suggestive. Don’t wait for a ban.
Knowledge is Power - Weather Terms to Know
The Red Cross instructs us to pay attention to the advice and information provided by local media and governance. It’s important to know the difference between a “warning” and a “watch.” According to the Red Cross:
A WATCH means Be Prepared.
A WARNING means Take Action.
Winter Storm WARNING: Life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours.
Blizzard WARNING: Sustained winds or frequent gusts of 35 miles per hour or greater, plus considerable falling or blowing snow reducing visibility to less than a quarter mile, expected to prevail for three hours or longer.
WIND CHILL Temperature: How cold people and animals feel when outside. As wind increases, heat is carried away from your body at a faster rate, driving down your body temperature and making you feel much colder. The wind chill temperature is not the actual temperature but rather how wind and cold feel on exposed skin.
Winter Storm OUTLOOK: Winter storm conditions possible in the next two to five days. Stay tuned to local media for updates.
Winter Storm WATCH: Winter storm conditions possible within the next 36 to 48 hours. Review your winter storm plans and stay informed about weather conditions.
Winter Weather ADVISORY: Winter weather conditions expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous but not life-threatening if you are cautious.
Advanced technology means we can get information as it develops right to our phones. Sign up with New York Alert to receive emergency alerts and stay in the know.
Prepare Ahead of a Storm
- Install and test smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors and keep backup batteries in an easy-to-access location.
- Have a plan and instruct your family about alternate warming locations, safety procedures, and where to find emergency supplies.
- Obtain food, water, and medicine well before a winter storm outlook turns into a watch or advisory. Be sure to have nutrient-dense food on hand that does not require a heat source for cooking.
- Prepare a Go-Kit: three+ days of supplies for each member of your household that can be carried if your home is no longer safe. Keep blankets, boots, extra warm clothes, and first aid supplies in your vehicle.
- Prepare a Stay-at-Home Kit: For each household member, have on hand two+ weeks of warm clothing, blankets, outerwear, one gallon of bottled drinking water per person per day, first aid supplies, medicines, shelf-stable food, extra batteries, and flashlights.
- Check air intake and furnace venting systems and have a plan for removing snow and ice obstructions if necessary.
Safe Heating During Winter Emergencies
It’s best not to wait for an emergency to make sure your heating system is working efficiently, especially when the outdoor temperature and wind chill reach record lows. If you haven’t yet, schedule your yearly furnace and HVAC maintenance so that your furnace is functioning optimally. In the event of a power outage during extreme cold, the rule of thumb is to keep warm air in and cold air out as much as possible. Fires and carbon monoxide poisoning are both significant dangers during winter storms and power outages, especially if emergency services are unable to reach your home. Call 9-1-1 and evacuate at the first sign of light-headedness.
- Stay inside and heed any advisories or warnings that go into effect.
- Avoid wasting heat by closing off rooms that are not being used.
- Place towels and blankets in cracks beneath doors.
- Close all window curtains, shades, and blinds for added insulation.
- Eat and drink non-caffeinated, hydrating beverages to fuel your body and keep it warm.
- Layer loose-fitting clothing and avoid perspiring and overheating.
- Follow safeguards when heating your home with a wood stove or fireplace and make sure proper ventilation is occurring.
- Do not attempt to heat your home with an oven or stove used for cooking due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Likewise, generators, grills, and camp stoves should only be used outdoors.
- Avoid using candles as they increase the risk of fire.
- Gas furnace vents should not be blocked by a snowdrift or any other obstructions. At least one death during the storm in Buffalo has been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning due to this.
- Follow all safety instructions when space heaters are in use.
- Keep flammable materials at least 3 feet away from any heat source.
Our best advice for managing extreme cold is to ensure your furnace is in top working order and that your insulation and ductwork can efficiently support your furnace’s extra effort during the cold snap. Then if your power goes out, your home will retain heat longer and keep cold air from sneaking in. From all of us at Potter Heating, Cooling, and Plumbing, stay warm and safe this winter. We will be here when you need us.