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Video: Storm brings heavy rain, ice and snow

By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 12/12/2008 2:47:23 PM ET 2008-12-12T19:47:23

As Mark Twain put it, “Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get.” Ain’t that the truth.

The apocalyptic images from recent weather events bring to mind the need to keep ourselves and our loved ones as safe as possible during bad storms, no matter where we live. Power outages that strike in the sweltering summer months are often just as deadly as power outages that hit in the dead of winter.

Of course, it’s important to plan ahead as much as possible — but it’s also important to have an awareness of how to proceed even if we’re caught totally unprepared. The following tips can help.

1. Assemble an emergency kit. Have these items on hand and make sure they can last for at least 72 hours: a flashlight; batteries; a portable radio; at least 1 gallon of water per person per day; non-perishable foods such as canned goods and granola bars; a can opener; an extra set of clothes; durable shoes; blankets; items to help pass the time, such as a deck of cards; a first aid kit that includes prescription drugs as needed; a whistle; and supplies such as duct tape and plastic so you can build a “shelter in place” if necessary. You can make smaller versions of this kit for your car or office and stock it with practical items for either setting.

2. Take special steps if you have special needs. Do you rely on life-support equipment or other power-dependent equipment to maintain your health? If so, register with your utility so your home will be treated as a top priority in the event of a power outage. You also should put a plan in place, possibly involving an emergency standby generator for your home or an arrangement to stay at a health-care facility that has backup power. If you personally don’t have special needs but can think of someone in your area who might, offer your assistance. Think about your elderly, disabled or non-English-speaking neighbors.

3. Know where to find water. As mentioned in Tip No. 1, you ideally should have a supply of water stocked away for yourself and your family — but what if you don’t? Then make a mental note of “hidden” water supplies. In a real emergency, you could drain water from the drain spout of a water heater or from pipes inside your home, let the ice in ice-cube trays melt, or even use water from your toilet storage or reserve tank if chemicals haven’t been used in it. Other sources exist outside your home, such as rainwater, rivers, ponds and lakes. In most cases you should purify such water by boiling it. To read more about how to secure safe drinking water, visit this site.

4. Keep your refrigerated food safe. If the power goes out, try not to open your refrigerator or freezer doors so you don’t lose cold air unnecessarily. The contents of a full fridge should keep for about six hours; the contents of a full freezer should last for as long as two days. Don’t taste foods to see whether they’re OK. Instead, follow these rules: Throw away any food items that become warmer than 41 degrees. And if you’re in doubt about a food item, throw it out.

5. Avoid shock and electrocution. Never do any of these things: operate a generator in rainy or wet conditions; touch a generator with wet hands; use electrical appliances that have gotten wet; touch exposed cables or electrical wires in your home; get near or touch downed or sagging power lines outside; or engage in an extremely dangerous practice known as “backfeeding,” which involves connecting a generator to your home’s wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet without the use of an appropriate power transfer switch.

6. Protect yourself from hypothermia. Hypothermia sets in when a person’s body temperature plummets. Symptoms include uncontrolled shivering, slow or unclear speech, extreme tiredness, difficulty walking, confusion, semi-consciousness or unconsciousness. To avoid this condition, wear layers of warm clothing and warm coverings for your head, hands and feet; change into a new set of dry clothes if your clothing gets wet; and find or build some form of shelter to stay as warm as possible.  (Note: Your vehicle could serve as the shelter you need, and your life could be saved if you have extra clothing and supplies packed in your trunk.)

7. Don’t get overheated. If the power goes out when it’s hot outside, take these steps: stay in the lowest level of your home where it will be coolest; put on light-weight, light-colored clothing; drink lots of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty; remember to give your pets fresh, cool water; and visit an air-conditioned movie theater, mall or store if the heat is overwhelming. You can find additional heat-related tips at this American Red Cross Web page.

8. Steer clear of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Most of the people in the Seattle region who were sickened or killed by carbon monoxide got exposed to the odorless fumes because they operated charcoal grills, camping stoves or generators inside their dark, cold homes. Msnbc.com columnist Herb Weisbaum wrote an excellent and detailed ConsumerMan column about the dangers of carbon monoxide. Definitely read it! Also bear these overall tips in mind: Never, ever burn charcoal or use gasoline- or propane-powered equipment inside your home. Don’t even do it in your garage or on your porch. Use such equipment only when you’re completely outdoors.

9. Stay safe while on the road. A while back I wrote a  “10 Tips” column about how to winterize your car . That column contains all sorts of information about how to get your car ready for cold weather, including a tip about what to do if you get stranded and stuck in the snow. Generally speaking, you should never wander away from your vehicle unless you’re certain about precisely where you are and precisely where you can find help. Other tidbits to remember: stay on main roads whenever possible; use a bright distress flag, flares or hazard lights to draw attention to your car; and if you have enough gasoline, run the engine and heater for about 10 minutes every hour so you stay warm.

10. Know when to say when. No one wants to leave the comfort of his or her own home — but sometimes you unavoidably must do just that. If the power remains out for days, relocate to the home of a friend or relative who still has electricity or go to an emergency shelter. Most shelters will have power, heat, food, water, bedding, extra clothing and anything else that you and your family will need to stay alive.

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