Poor planning can lead to unpleasant, uncomfortable, and even unsafe situations in and around your home. Here are 10 common mistakes, and how you can stay safe in the event of power outages, high winds, freezing temps, and lots of snow.
Editor's Note (Jan. 22, 2016): This story originally ran in 2015—but with the East Coast hunkering down for a weekend of heavy snow, you might need a refresher on common storm prep mistakes.
Cities like New York and Boston are preparing for the first big blizzard of 2015, potentially one of the biggest snowfalls in history. If you're under a winter storm warning, you may have already stocked up on food and water—but have you really done everything you should to keep yourself safe?
"The storm we're in today is a very complicated one, and because of its proximity to the jet stream, we believe it's going to have an awful lot of energy," says weather anchor Sam Champion, who hosts AMHQ on The Weather Channel and is currently covering Winter Storm Juno from New York. "Somebody's going to get two to three feet of snow, so it's important to pay very close attention and plan for the worst-case scenario."
That's because poor planning can lead to unpleasant, uncomfortable, and even unsafe situations in and around your home. Here are 10 common mistakes that people often make when prepping for a storm, and how you can stay safe in the event of power outages, high winds, freezing temps, and lots of snow. For more tips and updates on the storm, visit Safety.gov or check with your local authorities.
Forgetting to buy batteries
Your pre-storm shopping list may include lots of ready-to-eat foods and bottled water. But if your power goes out, you may need batteries to power flashlights, radios, and other electronic devices. It's also smart to keep a hand-crank-powered radio on hand, says Champion. "Get one with a weather band setting, so you can get storm updates even if your power goes out." And it's smart to have flashlights that work with Double A batteries, not just D batteries—which can sell out quickly.
Not charging your phone
Want to stay in touch during a power outage? Cell phones may still work, but not once they run out of juice. To ensure yours lasts as long as possible, charge them (as well as laptops, e-readers, and anything else you may want to use during the storm) fully while you still can.
You should also invest in a back-up battery that can recharge your phone wirelessly, says Champion. (If you can reach your vehicle, you may also be able to charge your phone using a car charger or your car's USB input.) To conserve battery life if your power does go out, turn your phone on airplane mode or completely off when you don't need it.
Not testing your carbon monoxide detectors
Carbon monoxide poisoning is one of the biggest causes of death during winter storms because of increased use of generators as heating sources. (Never use a generator indoors, in your garage, or near your home's air intake.) If you're going to use a generator or grill outdoors, it's important to make sure your detectors are hooked up and working, and keep the appliances at least 20 feet away from windows, doors, and vents.
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Bringing an outdoor barbecue grill inside is another dangerous move, says Champion; burning charcoal without ventilation can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, and using gas grills or camp stoves increases the risk of fire or explosion. Likewise, don't ever use your home's stove as a source of heat.
Ignoring dangerous tree branches
It may be too late to tackle this now, but it's something to remember for the future: Dead tree limbs and branches can be weighed down by snow and ice, damaging power lines or parts of your home. While the weather's still nice, trim any that look like they could pose a hazard.
Not planning for your pet
In several feet of snow, dogs and other pets may not be able to get outside and do their business as usual. Talk with your family ahead of time about what you'll do in this event—maybe you stock up on indoor housebreaking pads, or find a sheltered area outside your home that's safe from blowing winds and high snow accumulation.
Going out just for fun
As a storm's just beginning or starting to wind down, you may be tempted to head outdoors to check out the scenery, play in the snow, or squeeze in a run in the park. But blizzards often involve icy streets, high wind advisories, and disorienting, white-out conditions, with falling tree branches and slippery surfaces becoming very real dangers.
Freezing temperatures are a big risk in winter-storm conditions, as well, says Champion. "People think it's okay to run outside and take a picture of the snow, but when you have strong winds of 30 miles per hour or more, the chance of you developing frostbite or hypothermia on any skin that's exposed is pretty strong," he says. "If I can see it, it's at risk." If you need to go out for more than just a minute or two, wear a scarf, a hat, double layers of gloves and mittens, and even ski goggles to cover your eyes. Wait until the storm is over to enjoy winter fun.
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Not filling up water buckets
If you lose power and your water is shut off, you may also lose the ability to flush your toilet if the bowl is unable to refill itself. Filling up buckets (or your bathtub) with reserve water can help keep your bathroom functioning until your utilities are restored. Pour water into the bowl to flush the toilet manually.
It may seem romantic to be trapped indoors with nothing but candles to light your way, but open flames are a serious fire hazard during winter storms. "There are so many great battery-powered LED lighting products out there that can illuminate a whole room," says Champion. "Stock up on those and you won't have to worry about anything happening with an open flame."
If you must use candles, choose ones that are self contained, position them where they can't be knocked over easily, and don't leave them unattended. And make sure your smoke detectors are working, and that you've got fire extinguishers handy.
Running on empty
You may not worry much about your car's almost-empty gas tank; after all, you probably won't be driving for a few days. But if gas stations lose their ability to pump gas, having a full tank may get you going again sooner once the storm is over. Plus, keeping a full tank can help keep your car's fuel line from freezing. What's more, if you need to charge your phone by running your car, you won't worry about running out of gas.