Surviving Blizzards, Cold Snaps, and Power Outages

How to Prepare for Extreme Winter Weather

January 29, 2019
Woodchuck in Snow

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Ever had a blizzard or snowstorm cause power outages or emergency conditions? How do you prepare and survive the storm? Here are some tips from a winter weather veteran.

Up here in northern New England, we have had our fair share of walloping Nor’easters. One year, blizzard conditions rolled into town at night, and we’d accumulated 10 inches of wet, heavy snow, and lost power within hours.

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.

Before the Blizzard

This is our emergency-preparation routine:

  • We leave the chickens indoors, with plenty of food and water.
  • We assemble charged flashlights and kerosene lamps on the kitchen table.
  • We load the wood boxes.
  • We locate the snow shovels and the roof rake, and set them inside the greenhouse (our entry to the rest of the house).
  • We take showers and leave the tub half-filled with flushing water, in anticipation of a power outage. We fill a couple of big stockpots with drinking and cooking water.

After the Blizzard

During a particularly bad nighttime blizzard, 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. Our fridge and root cellar were full. We had non-perishable food and water in the pantry.

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.

After we recovered from the storm, I 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!

Plus, check out our tips for getting through power outages.

About This Blog

"Living Naturally" is all about living a naturally healthy lifestyle. Margaret Boyles covers health tips, ways to avoid illness, natural remedies, food that's good for body and soul, recipes for homemade beauty products, ideas to make your home a healthy and safe haven, and the latest news on health. Our goal is also to encourage self-sufficiency, whether it's relearning some age-old skills or getting informed on modern improvements that help us live better, healthier lives.

Reader Comments

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Phone lines

When super storm hit New Jersey where I live, we were without electricity for 7 days.
We were prepared . But when the power finally came on, my landline was not in service, so after 3 Verizon technicians failed to repair , discovered that the outside line was caroded, so Verizon gave me Voice Link a long battery life operated device that a landline phone is plugged into, even if a power outage happens still have landline service. Voice Link is less expensive for the service, didnt have to pay for the device

Surviving Blizzards, Cold Snaps, and Power Outages

Greetings - I am actually from and in Africa.
I see the remarks about cell phone poor reception. Same problem here. I urge persons living and operating in remote areas of the world to consider SAT phones. If you have sky above you it will work. Rechargeable. Not much bigger than a normal cellphone - a bit more costly to buy + /- $ 1000.00 - and at about 1 $ per min talk time - you can phone from anywhere to anywhere in the world. You can even transmit data via it. Best thing since sliced bread. I will never go into the wild without it. Regards.

Surviving Outages

Thank you to the respondent from Africa...I had thought SAT phones were not available to the average consumer. Although a bit pricey it could save your life when needed.

Amazing stories

Spent most of my 67 years in areas where winter temperatures rarely even got down to freezing, much less below. I now live in Idaho, in the supposed 'banana belt', but last winter had 3 feet of snow and this winter had at least a week where the high was in the low 30's. Your story about the septic line freezing really has me thinking now. We have to have ours replaced in the spring, and the local inspector said ours should be only 6 inches below the surface due to the rock and clay that lies deeper. Now I'm worried that 6 inches might not be enough!

Septic Line Freezing

I would guess 6 inches is not far enough down. Although these pipes do not contain a constant flow of liquid like our intake water lines...which 3 ft depth is recommended.

There is a social media Q & A site called Quora where one can ask such a question of experts or those who've experienced this condition that may provide some insight.

styptic powder

One thing I thought to purchase a few years back is a jar of styptic powder. We live far enough away from help, that serious cuts are a concern. The brand I found is meant for vet uses, but I have had to use it twice already and had no issues and stopped bleeding instantly. Thanks for this article. I lived through the winter if 96/97 outside of fargo and had no water or power for 5 days. Luckily, I'm pretty well set up, but I learned a few things here today. And I will never be without an outhouse, lol!!

Styptic powder

Good idea! I’d suggest adding a good antiseptic and butterfly bandages in various sizes to clean and close deep wounds when you can’t get medical attention right away.

What's a Good Antiseptic

Please provide some suggestions for "a good antiseptic" Margaret.

I'm only guessing here, the following fall in that category:

Hydrogen Peroxide, Alcohol (?? %) in bottle & wipes...are methiolate or iodine good also ?

Thank you for your response.

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.

Winter Weather;

I had heard on the radio years ago; ANY old Cell phone will "dial 911";(regardless of whether the phone has a subscription"); VG info to have;;;

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.


Rodents & Other Vermin Under the Hood

I've heard that moth balls can deter rodents & squirrels from damaging wires, etc. under your vehicle's hood. Is that true and are there any other materials that could be used? Thank you for such an informative Blog.


Most people are very, very ill prepared. And the possibility of a nationwide power outage is increasing as fast as we become even more reliant on the grid. DO not assume you will be able to get gasoline to power a generator. Find out now, which gas stations are open if there is a power outage. Tell your friends and family. Expect long lines for fuel, potable water, basic necessities and first aid of any kind, even farm animals and pets need prepping. Losing your frozen food is the least of your worries. I hope your pantry and larder are well stocked. Which reminds me, you probably will not be cooking much if your stove uses electricity at all. Keep your propane at 50% or higher during the Winter. Have a bug out bag in case you have to leave your home. There are many good articles on what to have in it. And make one for your vehicles. NOW. Not next week. Research. Read, learn. NOW. Most people are shocked to learn grocery stores are 3 days away from completely empty shelves. After that, semi trucks will take much longer to get into areas to restock, if they can. We should all have at least a month's worth of dry goods, canned goods, candles, batteries. Think basic necessities. If you don't like canned beans, don't buy them to survive on them. Think smart. You do not need to stock up on pet food. Pets are amazing at adapting. But, you should have reserves for your farm animals. For less than $50 you can get a hand crank, three power source battery operated radio with emergency band, weather, etc. Buy one NOW. Did I say candles? You will probably not be going to work. Think long term. Survival is what people will be doing and many will panic after the second day. Cash is good but people will be bartering for food and water. Think snacks, candy, what people want when they are scared...As soon as you get a serious storm warning, check all your battery operated gizmos and go get fuel for your vehicle. Have cables that connect to your vehicles power supply to charge up your cell phone (s). Charge them ahead of time. Mark your driveway in case you get 6 feet of snow. You don't need anything fancy. Just do it before the storm hits the fan. BTW, your gas or propane furnace uses a fan (in most cases) which runs on electric. Have an alternative source of heat. Your dishwasher, refrigerator, freezer are all coolers in emergencies. Use them sparingly. I am not an alarmist but I have been without power for five days. My propane logs in a fireplace heated the entire 3,700 s.f. house along with the wood burner in the basement. Drip water as one person suggested. YOU ARE GOING TO SURVIVE but it never hurts to be extra prepared. Lastly, do you what the number one thing sold out at a gas station in a power outage? You may be surprised. Research, research.


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