Person shoveling snow off sidewalks with a red shovel.

What to do after a winter storm

Written by:
December 4, 2023
Anna_Kuzmina // Shutterstock

What to do after a winter storm

For people living in warmer climates, blizzards, ice storms, snowstorms, and other winter-related weather events may not seem as threatening as other natural disasters. You just wait out the snow and you're fine, right? Not necessarily. People who live in colder areas know that ice, sleet, snow, and extreme cold can be just as deadly as fires or hurricanes—especially if you underestimate them.

Most people in cold climates know how to prepare for a winter storm: 

  • If you drive, try to park your car inside or under cover—bonus points if you leave a snow brush and ice scraper in the trunk. If you park outside, leave the scraper in your home, where you can get to it to clear off accumulated snow.
  • Own a working shovel and a bag of sand or other eco-friendly rock salt alternative
  • Make sure your heating is working and sufficiently fueled up. 
  • Service your generator. 
  • Stock up on groceries.
  • Dig out warm socks, gloves, hats, and blankets. 
  • Locate flashlights and candles, and charge up all your devices in case of potential power outages.

But what do you do after the storm? After the snow stops, you can still feel the nasty—and often dangerous—effects. Frozen pipes, freezing temperatures, power loss, and black ice are just a few of the hazards. The key to staying safe is remaining cautious even after you think you're in the clear.

Just heading out to shovel snow can be risky. Overexertion can lead to heart issues—heart attacks are more common in winter months, research shows. Leaving skin exposed to the elements can result in frostbite. Remaining in wet clothes leads to a loss of body heat and increases the odds of hypothermia.

Stacker compiled recommendations from the National Weather Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and other experts to assemble this list of steps to take after a winter storm hits. Whether you need a refresher, a checklist, or a boost of confidence that you're already on top of all of these suggestions, we're here to help you brush up on what to do and how to prepare for the aftermath of a winter storm.

Read on for tips on preventing illness, shoveling snow safely, assessing damage to your property, and more.

Monitor the weather closely

Stay informed about the latest weather conditions by watching local news or listening to NOAA Weather Radio. Even after you think the danger has passed, it's important to know about road closures, changing weather patterns, and other community alerts. Local emergency services can provide updates if you sign up, or you can download a variety of apps for smartphones, such as the FEMA App from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the American Red Cross Emergency app.

Avoid walking or driving on ice and snow

Just because the snow is no longer falling doesn't mean driving is safe. Snow can melt during the daytime and then refreeze after dark, creating an even slicker sheet of ice. Black ice—nearly invisible frozen patches—can also create dangerous road conditions. If possible, wait until all the snow and ice melts to venture outside, either on foot or in your car. Alternatively, you can buy a bag of sand or other eco-friendly alternatives to rock salt to sprinkle on walkways and steps to accelerate the melting process and help with snow and ice removal.

Check on animals and people who require special assistance

After a storm hits, check on your pets and livestock to ensure they still have food, water, and heat. If you're able, call any neighbors, relatives, or friends who may need help, such as older people and those with disabilities.

Let your loved ones know you're safe

If you're traveling in the area of a winter storm, the National Weather Service recommends reaching out to loved ones to let them know your route and emergency plan. Whether you follow this precaution before driving or if you're home with anticipated power outages, don't forget to follow up. Get in touch with friends and family after the storm has passed to update them and let them know you're OK. Power outages may limit cellphone service, so if you can't get through, try again after an hour to see if coverage has improved.

Conserve food and water

Even if the snow has stopped, you might not be able to get to the grocery store safely. Conserve food and other supplies until you know for sure that you'll be able to buy more. You should also check with your local water company to ensure that your water is safe to drink before using it, as excess precipitation from storms can contaminate the water supply.

If you're stranded in a car, wait for the storm to pass completely

If the storm caught you off guard and you were forced to shelter in your parked car, wait until the storm ends to leave. Never set out on foot when snow is still falling. Anyone who has a vehicle in four-season climates ought to make or buy a basic emergency kit for the car that includes a flashlight, hand warmers, a multi-wick candle or two, waterproof matches, a blanket, a small shovel, and a snow scraper. Hand warmers and candles are particularly important for preventing frostbite while you wait for the weather to improve: A multi-wick candle can heat a car for up to 24 hours, rendering it a life-saving tool in sub-freezing conditions.

Find the nearest shelter

If your heat goes off during a winter storm, you may be forced to find somewhere else to stay. Text "SHELTER" and your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find options for shelters within 200 miles of your home. Chances are, if your home loses heat and power, your neighbors are in the same position, so remember to check on them as well—particularly the older people, people with disabilities, and parents with young children.

Dress for the weather

Wear lightweight layers of warm, dry, loose-fitting clothes to stay warm and prevent frostbite and hypothermia. Don't forget boots, mittens, and a hat. If you shovel, quickly change out of any wet clothes, which make your body extra susceptible to losing heat, and wrap yourself in a blanket. Scarves are also a great way to protect your lungs against cold air.

Shovel snow carefully

It's easy to overexert yourself in extreme temperatures. If you need to shovel snow, use proper form to prevent back injuries. You should also take breaks every 15 to 20 minutes to stretch your back and prevent exhaustion. Overexertion can lead to heart attacks, which are more common in the winter than in other seasons.

Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia

If you spend any time in extremely cold temperatures, you should pay attention to signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Your skin will turn white or gray, feel firm or waxy, and go numb as frostbite sets in. Telltale signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness.

Use flashlights rather than candles

If your power goes out, use battery-powered flashlights or headlamps from your emergency kit to light your way instead of candles. Open flames can easily cause accidental injuries or fires during storms.

Check for downed power lines near your home

Once the storm passes, survey the scene outside before you leave the safety of your home. Look for downed power lines that may have been felled by high winds or heavy snow. If you see any, stay inside and report them to your local power company immediately. Electricity might still be coursing through the lines.

Look for broken windows

You should also check your home for broken windows. Not only can the shattered glass be dangerous, but openings can also let in cold air and cause the indoor temperature to drop. If you find any broken windows, cover them with plywood and taped-up blankets to temporarily block out the weather.

Call a plumber to inspect your pipes

Frozen pipes can cause up to $15,000 in damage—especially if you don't catch the problem until it's too late. If you suspect that your pipes might be frozen, turn off the water supply immediately and get a plumber to inspect them as soon as possible.

Look for ceiling leaks

After storms, frozen gutters and ice dams on the roof will slowly melt as the temperature rises, leaking in through the shingles and into your home. Inspect every inch of your ceiling for leaks. If you see any potential structural damage, find somewhere else to stay or at least move your family to the other side of the house.

Check nearby trees for broken limbs

When it's safe to go outside, look closely at any trees near your home. Check for broken limbs and damaged trees that are still standing. If they haven't fallen yet, they could come down at any moment. Call a professional to remove any broken limbs as soon as possible.

Avoid using alternate sources for electricity, heating, or cooking that can cause carbon monoxide poisoning

Every year, roughly 420 people die from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of these incidents occur during the winter, often due to people using gas- or charcoal-burning appliances in enclosed spaces. No matter what, do not attempt to use a gas- or charcoal-powered grill, camp stove, generator, or other appliance inside your home—even if the power is out. It's also a good idea to check that your carbon monoxide detectors are in good working order.

Pay attention to your emotional recovery

It's completely natural to feel exhausted, stressed, and drained in the aftermath of a severe winter storm or another emergency. Remember to nurture your mental health as well as your physical health after a natural disaster. Eat healthy, get plenty of rest, be patient with yourself, and try to stay positive. If you need to talk to someone, call the 24-hour Red Cross Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990 or text "TalkWithUs" to 66746.

Story editing by Jeff Inglis. Copy editing by Paris Close.

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