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Plan ahead for winter weather emergencies
By Bethany Waldrop Keiper
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi's unpredictable winter weather can leave people shivering in the dark without warning, so prepare for winter storms long before the first drop of freezing rain falls.
Herb Willcutt, agricultural engineering and safety specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said thorough preparations before you're iced in can provide important creature comforts.
"Make sure you have a good stock of batteries, candles, oil lamps, battery powered items and radios," Willcutt said. "Think about methods of emergency communication since regular communication avenues may be closed."
Ice storms often send telephone and power lines to the ground. It seems that almost everyone has a cell phone to rely on, but these may not help when winter weather is at its worst.
"During winter storms, sometimes cell phones do not work, especially if there have been high winds or ice resulting in tower damage," Willcutt said. "What access there is may be tied up by too many people trying to make calls."
When the days are mild and pleasant, check camping stoves and propane tanks and burners, and fill all tanks.
"During weather emergencies, fuel can be hard to find, and the supplies may be limited because of other priorities, such as work crews repairing downed power lines," Willcutt said.
After filling propane bottles, be sure to store them safely.
"Do not store propane bottles in a room with a gas-operated water heater. It is best not to store these tanks in your home or in a utility room. Store them out and away from the home," Willcutt said. "They release some gas and need good ventilation even when not in use."
Proper ventilation is important for all alternative heating sources, including generators. Carbon monoxide poisoning from fuel-burning appliances kills hundreds of people each year and sends thousands to hospital emergency rooms for treatment, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Even opening doors and windows -- something homeowners want to avoid if the weather is freezing -- does not guarantee enough ventilation. Keep generators and cookers outdoors to prevent problems.
Most people prefer to stay indoors during winter storms, but if the need to travel arises, make sure to have the proper supplies available.
"People need certain items in their car for protection throughout the winter season. These items are especially vital during or after a winter storm," Willcutt said. "Before starting out on the road, be sure to have a tank full of gas. Have a blanket, extra socks and boots, an emergency first-aid kit, and sand or rock salt to provide traction for tires if necessary."
Many people try using kitty litter for this purpose, but it only works until it gets wet, and then it becomes a slippery problem.
"If you travel over ice, decrease tire pressure to 15-20 pounds for better traction, and limit your driving," Willcutt said. "Then be sure to inflate the tires to the proper pressure when traction improves."
Antifreeze, which is important for automobiles during freezing weather, is a hazard for pets.
"Antifreeze is extremely dangerous for pets, even in small amounts. Even the environmentally friendly types of antifreeze are toxic to pets," said Dr. Thomas Lenarduzzi, associate clinical professor at MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Pets' calorie demands increase during cold weather for body temperature maintenance, so feed them a little more as they try to deal with icy conditions.
"Make sure pets have fresh water, and use nonmetal water bowls. Check to be sure the freezing temperatures have not turned the pet's water into a block of ice," he said.
Food safety consideration...
During the chill of a winter power outage, make sure food supplies are safe. Eating perishable foods that have been at room temperature for more than two hours can add another problem -- food poisoning.
Human nutrition specialists at MSU explained that food in a refrigerator is generally safe if the power was out for less than two or three hours. Food in a full, free-standing freezer will be safe for about two days, and food in a half-full freezer will be safe for about one day.
The appearance or odor of a food is not a guarantee of its safety, so when in doubt, throw it out. Canned goods with long shelf life, boxed items and high-energy snacks are good to have on hand in case of a winter weather emergency, Willcutt said.
When dealing with storm-related problems, remember others in the community who might need help.
"It's important to be a good neighbor," Willcutt said. "The elderly and those with health problems may not ask for help even if they need it, so be sure to check on them often."