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WUWM breaks down important Wisconsin issues to help you understand how they impact you and our state.

Don’t let another snowstorm surprise you: Read these tips on how to prepare for extreme winters

Patino Jhon
In case your car gets stuck in the snow, one rule of thumb is to carry cat litter or sand for extra tire traction.

The first big snowstorm of the year hit Southeast Wisconsin earlier this month.

While many hunkered down at home and waited out the storm, tens of thousands were left without power in below-freezing temperatures and unsure about what to do.

To learn more about how people can prepare themselves for future winter storms, Lake Effect’s Xcaret Nuñez spoke with Andrew Beckett, a public information officer for Wisconsin Emergency Management and head of Ready Wisconsin, and Jen Warren, the regional communications director for the American Red Cross, Wisconsin.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What’s the difference between a winter storm warning and a winter storm watch? 

Warren explains a winter storm warning means life-threatening or severe winter weather conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours.

Meanwhile, Warren says a winter storm watch means winter storm conditions are possible within the next 36 to 48 hours.

“It's important to know the difference between both of those so that you know how long that you have to prepare,” she adds.

What supplies should I have on hand? 

For people: 

  • Beckett says emergency kits at home should include a supply of nonperishable food that can feed someone for at least three days — preferably something that doesn't require to be cooked so if you were to lose power or natural gas service, you're able to make sure that everybody in your home remains fed.
  • Supply of water for each person in a household, at least one gallon per person per day for hygiene and eating purposes 
  • Flashlights and extra batteries
  • Battery-powered or hand-cranked NOAA Weather Radio
  • A 3-5 day supply of medications and any necessary medical supplies
  • List of phone numbers for family, neighbors and local emergency services

For pets: 

  • Several days’ supply of pet food, water and medications
  • Collar, leash and ID tags
  • Copy of health records
  • Bring them indoors if possible

For cars: 

  • Cat litter or sand for extra tire traction
  • Jumper cables
  • Warm blankets
  • Snow scrapper
  • Car cellphone charger
  • Snow shovels
  • Extra set of hats and gloves
  • Paper maps
  • Supply of snacks
  • List of emergency service contacts

What does making an emergency plan look like? 

Beckett says emergency plans really should focus on whether it’s unsafe to leave the house or unsafe to stay in the house.

If you’re unable to leave the house — Beckett says to create an emergency kit and keep it stocked with essential supplies (such as those listed above). He also recommends to keep a list of emergency contacts.

If you’re unable to stay in the house — Beckett says to prepare ahead of time by identifying where you’d be able to go, such as a family or friend’s home, or any nearby shelters.

What do I do if my power goes out? 

  • Contact your utility provider, they will address the direct power outage and update you on restoration times
  • Never use a generator inside your home — make sure it is at least 20 feet away from your home and properly ventilated to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning

What do I do if my pipes burst?

  • Shut off main water source to your home
  • Contact a plumber to help advise you on what the next steps are based on your situation 
  • To help prevent pipes from bursting in the future due to extreme cold weather, open cabinets and have a heat source that can help the pipes stay above freezing temperatures

What’s the difference between hypothermia and frostbite? 

Signs of hypothermia and how to treat it: 

  • Shivering
  • Confusion 
  • Drowsiness 
  • Slurred speech

Warren says people should seek emergency care right away if they suspect they or someone else is experiencing hypothermia. She also adds that the person experiencing hypothermia should move to a warm place, remove any wet clothing and warm themselves up with a dry set of clothes and blankets.

Signs of frostbite: 

  • Lack of feeling or pain in your nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes
  • Skin that appears waxy, is cold to the touch or is discolored (white, grey, yellow or blue) 

Warren says people who suspect they or some else is experiencing frostbite should move to a warm place and gently apply warm water, not hot water, to the affected area until skin begins to look normal. Then, seek emergency medical care.

Where do I go if I don’t have a place to stay? 

Beckett says shelter information will vary widely based on where people live.

“Some municipalities may set up warming centers, or they may work with organizations like the Red Cross or other volunteer organizations to set up shelter operations overnight if conditions really warrant it, and they see a demand for having that resource available.

The best resource that an individual might need to look at is local government websites and social media accounts, because typically speaking, if they open warming centers or overnight shelters, they're going to post that information in a public place where people can hopefully see it.”

Beckett also advises people to reach out to 211 Wisconsin (by dialing 2-1-1), a service that helps connects residents to community services and assistance.

Where can I get local, trusted and up-to-date info? 

Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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