Survive Blizzards, Cold Snaps, and Power Outages

Woodchuck in Snow

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Ever had a blizzard or snowstorm disrupt holiday plans? How do you prepare and survive?

A walloping Nor’easter was heading our way this past Thanksgiving holiday, forcing us to cancel plans to join my sister and her family in Vermont for the feast. Oh well. Not the first time it’s happened where we live up here in northern New England.

When we lose power, our two wood stoves—one of them a modern cookstove with an oven—keep us warm and well-fed, and prevent our pipes from freezing.

We went through our emergency-preparation routine:

  • We left the chickens indoors, with plenty of food and water.
  • We assembled charged flashlights and kerosene lamps on the kitchen table.
  • We loaded the wood boxes.
  • We located the snow shovels and the roof rake, and set them inside the greenhouse (our entry to the rest of the house).
  • Just as the storm started around midday Wednesday, we took showers and left the tub half-filled with flushing water, in anticipation of a power outage. We filled a couple of big stockpots with drinking and cooking water.

We were ready.

Blizzard conditions rolled in. By 10:00 p.m., we’d accumulated 10 inches of wet, heavy snow, and lost power. After a fitful sleep, we awoke to 14 inches of snow, still wet and heavy, still coming down. By mid-morning, the snow had stopped.

Be sure you have strong shovels on hand! After the snow stopped, we donned outdoor gear and tackled two hours plus of heavy shoveling. The turkey and fixings were in Vermont, but I’d made a deep-dish pumpkin (squash) pie, and the fridge and root cellar were full. For Thanksgiving dinner, we feasted on leftover chili, a big salad, and lots of pie with ice cream.

Stock a battery-powered radio (rechargeable with a hand crank). As telephone cables were downed by the blizzard, our radio told us that hundreds of thousands were without power. Roads in town couldn’t even be plowed until utility crews arrived to saw up downed trees and untangled dangerous wires on the road.

By then, our utility’s emergency phone line was telling us to prepare for a “multi-day event.” They’d called in hundreds of utility-line workers from eastern Canada and as far south as Tennessee. My big concern: lack of power to the two big freezers in the cellar that hold a season’s worth of homegrown fruits and vegetables—our winter stash. I threw insulating quilts over them and hoped for the best.

I’ve lived most of my life in rural towns in northern New England, and over the decades, I’ve learned a few hard lessons about winter. No matter how well-prepared I think I am, I sometimes forget essentials, and things come up that I hadn’t imagined.

  • What do you do when your septic system freezes? The year my daughter Molly was two, our aged septic drain pipe cracked underground, leaked, and froze solid from early December until mid-April. (We’ve long since replaced it.) That winter we sponge-bathed, tossed dishwater into the bushes behind the woodshed, and fashioned a series of makeshift toilets in the basement: 5-gallon buckets and ample amounts of wood ashes. Come spring, we trucked the pails far into the sugarbush, dug holes, and buried the contents.
  • What happens if you hurt yourself? During a three-day blizzard, I sliced my finger to the bone hacking away at a winter squash. The gash really needed stitches, but there was no way we could get out and drive the 20 miles to an urgent care center. I disinfected it, bathed it in a strong infusion of dried yarrow leaves (with styptic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties), then applied pressure with a sterile bandage until the bleeding slowed. I wrapped it with a dry, sterile gauze pad and bound it tightly with a big wad of duct tape. The next morning, I undid the bandage. The bleeding had stopped and I was pleased to note no swelling or oozing. I disinfected the area again, applied four butterfly bandages to keep the wound edges together, and again wrapped it with duct tape. Check our other tips for health emergencies.

The message for rural-dwellers: Maintain a well-stocked first-aid kit, with bandages of all sizes and shapes, including butterfly bandages, self-adhesive elastic bandages, and a big roll of duct tape. I also keep bottles of over-the-counter pain-killers and liquid antihistamine, plenty of disinfectant, a digital thermometer, and a pair of fine-pointed tweezers for removing slivers. Check our tips for creating an emergency home kit and an emergency car kit.

Lessons learned from the latest storm

  • Have a backup plan for the landline. Last summer, our small town finally got wired with fiber-optic cable, and we signed up. One thing the sales and technical folks failed to tell us was that the optical cable, and along with it, our landline, would fail along with the power. Despite an 18-hour backup system in the basement, our phone did fail, and we spent one night and half the next day without any connection to the outside world. That was frightening. The high cost and poor cell service in our area has kept us from going mobile, but we’ve since found a very low-cost pay-as-you-go phone that connects with the most reliable service.
  • Keep an eye on the fire extinguishers. Midway through the storm, I thought to check the three we keep on hand; two all-purpose ones for the wood-stove areas, a smaller one for kitchen fires perched on the shelf alongside the herbs and spices over the gas stove. All had expired! We tend our stoves with care, keep combustibles far from both the stoves, and store the ashes in a covered metal trash barrel on a cement floor, but an accident, a moment of carelessness, or an electrical problem could cause a blaze.
  • Keep fresh batteries in the smoke detectors. I suddenly remembered we hadn’t changed the backup batteries in our hard-wired smoke detector system since it was installed three years ago. Guess what? We were out of the 9-volt batteries the system required.

It’s Monday morning. Bright, sunny, and so warm that half the snow has already melted. I’m headed off to buy three new fire extinguishers, a cell phone, and a package of 9-volt batteries for the smoke alarms.

Do you have any tips for surviving blizzards? Let us know below!

And check out our tips for getting through power outages.

~ By  Margaret Boyles

About This Blog

Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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Winter Preparedness

I teach Emergency Preparedness to children. I find that teaching children is often the best way to reach adults. Anyway, being without a mobile phone for emergencies isn't wise and can be easly corrected by (a) finding an old phone nobody wants and (b) getting the charger for tht phone. Regardless of the age the cell phone will have access to the 911 network, for free. It may be worth it pick up a power source for the cell phone, like a crank radio with a cell phone charging accessory, just in case the power goes down.

Wow! I live on the Southwest

Wow! I live on the Southwest New Mexico High Desert (elev. 5,000). Several years ago, temperatures dipped to -10 F. Unheard of in this area -- even for lifelong residents! And definitely destructive for the Mexican style of construction common in this area.

First thing that happened was everyone ran out of propane! EVERYONE! All at the same time. The company I use hired extra drivers and began delivering 24 hours a day! The governor of our state said NOT to use electricity to heat with, as there had been a blackout in Northern New Mexico, where matters were worse than us! The peoples' question was how do they want us to heat? Build a fire in the living room? It was the only night I wore my clothes to bed in case I had to get up for some reason or another, and, yes, I heated with electricity! I put a space heater near my hot water heater to prevent it from freezing and used a built-in space heater in my bedroom. Fortunately, all went well.

When the propane guy finally arrived, it was time for rejoicing!

When the temperature heated up again, all that had occurred at my house was a temporary leak of the water heater, which apparently shrunk the tiniest bit with no fuel to it. Once I got the pilot light lit and the water heated up, it quit leaking!

I learned there were only two faucets I truly needed to protect by turning on the water to dribble during the night, which was better than what I was trying to do!

Later, I heard of many whose houses had suffered from every pipe in the house freezing up. Local hardware stores sold out of many needed plumbing repair supplies!

I remain grateful to live in a part of the world where the sun DOES shine and shines brightly, too -- all through the winter!

Quite a story, Margaret! I've

Quite a story, Margaret! I've had lots of adventures with below-zero temperatures (not mentioned in my post), so I can relate. 

Also, I didn't mention the vehicular woes of winter: cars failing to start, frozen gas lines, rodents chewing through wires & tubes and building nests under the hood, getting stuck in snowbanks, skidding off roads...

The main message here: become as well-informed and stay as well-prepared as possible. Stay put if you can. Check on your neighbors (I forgot to mention that important point). And stay connected to the outside world with radio and telephone. 

By the way, we did get a "basic" cell phone that gets service here. But wow! Now we have to learn to use the darn thing.

 

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