One minute, you’re enjoying a cozy winter evening at home. The next, you’re squinting into the darkness as your power goes out.
Yep, winter is coming all right.
“In the Pacific Northwest, we have the dangerous combination of tall trees, heavy rain and high winds in the fall and winter. Occasionally, we even get snow,” says Dr. Marie Vrablik, an emergency physician at Harborview Medical Center. “Trees falling on electrical lines leads to power outages, and snow and ice lead to dangerous travel conditions.”
What can you do to ensure your household is ready for these winter scenarios? Vrablik says it all comes down to preparation, education and a little togetherness.
Keep up with home maintenance
Before the winter storm blows in, it’s a good idea to do an annual maintenance check around your home.
Make sure your carbon monoxide detectors have batteries, rake leaves away from storm drains, clean out your gutters and trim tree branches that are hanging too close to your home. If you have outdoor water spigots, make sure to use faucet covers in winter to prevent them from freezing.
It’s also a good idea to have winter supplies on hand, like salt for de-icing sidewalks and a snow shovel.
“You want to keep steps and walkways outside your home clear and free from ice,” Vrablik says. “We see a lot of slips and falls that lead to broken wrists and ankles.”
Stock up on a disaster kit and other essentials
Along with winter supplies for outside your home, you’ll want to have plenty stocked up for inside your home as well.
“With COVID-19, I think we’ve all gotten pretty good at prepping,” Vrablik notes.
In your winter disaster kit, include things like flashlights, batteries, drinking water, no-prep dry foods, matches and other essentials for your family like baby food, formula and diapers.
If you take medication, check to see that you have a good supply on hand so you don’t run out if you’re snowed in and can’t leave your home. And be sure to take heavy blankets, winter jackets, hats, boots and gloves out of storage.
“You should know where all of that winter clothing is in case you need to walk somewhere for help or seek shelter,” Vrablik explains.
Avoid dangerous home hazards
In winter, it’s easy to accidentally turn your home into a hazard trap with space heaters, candles and fireplaces.
“We see a lot of injured kids with burns in the winter due to things people are using to heat their homes,” Vrablik says.
If you’re using a portable heater or have a fire going, feel surrounding surfaces to make sure they’re not too hot to the touch. If they are, keep young children and pets a safe distance away using baby gates or some other temporary barrier.
And if your power and heat go out, it’s also important to make sure you’re only using approved devices to heat your home.
“We see carbon monoxide poisoning occur more frequently in the winter,” Vrablik says. “People sometimes use unsafe devices like rigged heaters, grills or stoves in ways that aren’t ventilated properly. And there are cases where people will use their cars for heat, and that puts them at a higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, too.”
Stay warm the safe way
Although it’s rare in Seattle, you may find yourself without power and heat for an extended period of time.
Instead of using a potentially dangerous heat source, Vrablik suggests bundling up with multiple layers of clothing and blankets.
“If you live with your family or pets, pick one room of your home to stay in and, if you can, keep the door shut,” she says. “The room will heat with your body temperature.”
Closing curtains and stuffing towels under doors can also help preserve heat.
It’s also a good idea to check on your neighbors, especially older adults, to make sure they’re all right and have everything they need.
Make a back-up plan in advance
If you’re snowed in without power for days — a rare occurrence but still important to prepare for — you’ll want to know where you can seek shelter, how you’ll get there and who you can contact.
These are all important things to figure out before a winter storm blows in. Make a communication plan with friends, family or neighbors to make sure you have a safety net in place.
At the very least, it’s a good idea to know the safest way to ask for help and how to get from your home to a major transportation route, especially if you live in a rural area.
Continue practicing COVID-19 safety measures
Aside from adverse weather, this year’s winter may bring another danger: COVID-19.
Many infectious disease experts worry that the cold winter weather will drive gatherings indoors, which will only encourage the transmission of the disease.
“A big concern this winter will be preventing COVID-19 infections,” Vrablik says. “Symptoms are very similar to other typical winter viruses, like the flu.”
She encourages you to reach out to your doctor if you start to feel sick and to continue wearing a mask, washing your hands and physically distancing from others.
As for the gatherings with friends and family, Vrablik says to follow your county’s gathering limits and to keep get-togethers outside using creative methods.
“Use heat lamps, tarps or covered decks to extend your ability to use an outdoor space,” she suggests. “And if the weather makes it so you have to go inside, switch to virtual ways to connect like playing board games and watching movies over video conference with your loved ones instead. We’re all just going to have to be creative and stay in this together.”