Severe Winter Storms
Severe winter weather conditions can affect day-to-day activities. These can include blizzard conditions, heavy snow, blowing snow, freezing rain, heavy sleet, and extreme cold.
Winter storms are common during the winter months of October through April. The various types of extreme winter weather cause considerable damage. Heavy snows cause immobilized transportation systems, downed trees and power lines, collapsed buildings, and loss of livestock and wildlife. Blizzard conditions are winter storms which last at least three hours with sustained wind speeds of 35 mph or more, reduced visibility of 1/4 mile or less, and whiteout conditions. Heavy snows of more than 6 inches in a 12-hour period or freezing rain greater than 1/4 inch accumulation causing hazardous conditions in the community can slow or stop the flow of vital supplies as well as disrupt emergency and medical services. Loose snow begins to drift when the wind speed reaches 9 to 10 mph under freezing conditions. The potential for some drifting is substantially higher in open country than in urban areas where buildings, trees, and other features obstruct the wind. Ice storms result in fallen trees, broken tree limbs, downed power lines and utility poles, fallen communications towers, and impassable transportation routes. Severe ice storms have caused total electric power losses over large areas of Iowa and rendered assistance unavailable to those in need due to impassable roads. Frigid temperatures and wind chills are dangerous to people, particularly the elderly and the very young. Dangers include frostbite or hypothermia. Water pipes, livestock, fish and wildlife, and pets are also at risk from extreme cold and severe winter weather.
From 1983-2008, Iowa has had 848 heavy snow, ice storm, or extreme wind-chill events. There are many accounts of large numbers of deaths due to cold and blizzards in Iowa’s history. While we are not as vulnerable as the early settlers, there are recent accounts of multiple deaths from snowstorms and extreme cold around the state. From 1953-2008, four Presidential Declarations of Major Disaster have been declared in Iowa that were related to severe winter storms.
There were 115severe winter storms reported in Linn County from 1950-2009 with four being Presidential Declarations of Major Disasters. These severe winter storms have resulted in 5 deaths, 14 injuries and 18 million in damages.
Hazardous driving conditions due to snow and ice on highways and bridges lead to many traffic accidents. The leading cause of death during winter storms is transportation accidents. About 70% of winter-related deaths occur in automobiles and about 25% are people caught out in the storm. The majority of these are males over 40 years of age. Emergency services such as police, fire, and ambulance are unable to respond due to road conditions. Emergency needs of remote or isolated residents for food or fuel, as well as for feed, water and shelter for livestock are unable to be met. People, pets, and livestock are also susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia during winter storms. Those at risk are primarily either engaged in outdoor activity (shoveling snow, digging out vehicles, or assisting stranded motorists), or are the elderly or very young. Schools often close during extreme cold or heavy snow conditions to protect the safety of children and bus drivers. Citizens’ use of kerosene heaters and other alternative forms of heating may create other hazards such as structural fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Cold Weather Health Hazards
Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.
At the first signs of redness or pain in any skin area, get out of the cold or protect any exposed skin–frostbite may be beginning. Any of the following signs may indicate frostbite:
- A white or greyish-yellow skin area
- Skin that feels unusually form or waxy
A victim is often unaware of frostbite until someone else points it out because frozen tissue is numb.
What to do
If you detect symptoms of frostbite, seek medical care. Because frostbite and hypothermia both result from exposure, first determine whether the victim also shows signs of hypothermia, as described previously. Hypothermia is a more serious medical condition and requires emergency medical assistance.
If (1) there is frostbite but no sign of hypothermia and (2) immediate medical care is not available, proceed as follows:
- Get into a warm room as soon as possible.
- Unless absolutely necessary, do not walk on frostbitten feet or toes—this increases the damage.
- Immerse the affected area in warm—not hot—water (the temperature should be comfortable to the touch for unaffected parts of the body).
- Or, warm the affected area using body heat. For example, the heat of an armpit can be used to warm frostbitten fingers.
- Do not rub the frostbitten area with snow or massage it at all. This can cause more damage.
- Don’t use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming. Affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
These procedures are not substitutes for proper medical care. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and frostbite should be evaluated by a health care provider. It is a good idea to take a first aid and emergency resuscitation (CPR) course to prepare for cold-weather health problems. Knowing what to do is an important part of protecting your health and the health of others.
When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. The result is hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.
Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.
Victims of hypothermia are often (1) elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating; (2) babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; (3) people who remain outdoors for long periods—the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.; and (4) people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.
- shivering, exhaustion
- confusion, fumbling hands
- memory loss, slurred speech
- bright red, cold skin
- very low energy
What to do
If you notice any of these signs, take the person’s temperature. If it is below 95°, the situation is an emergency— get medical attention immediately.
If medical care is not available, begin warming the person, as follows:
- Get the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- If the victim has on any wet clothing, remove it.
- Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin—using an electric blanket, if available. Or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
- Warm beverages can help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- After body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible.
A person with severe hypothermia may be unconscious and may not seem to have a pulse or to be breathing. In this case, handle the victim gently, and get emergency assistance immediately. Even if the victim appears dead, CPR should be provided. CPR should continue while the victim is being warmed, until the victim responds or medical aid becomes available. In some cases, hypothermia victims who appear to be dead can be successfully resuscitated.