We used to know what to expect when it came to the weather: It was warm in the South, colder in the North, and there were dry seasons and rainy seasons. We knew what weather emergencies to plan for.
But things have changed. No one in Texas was expecting the cold snap that knocked out power and killed more than 200 people in February 2021, most of them from hypothermia. Nor were Tennessee residents ready for the flash floods that tore through Nashville last March, killing six and wiping out dozens of homes. And the tornadoes that struck Kentucky and elsewhere last December were part of an alarming trend: Although an average of 145 tornadoes sweep through the U.S. each year between January and March, five of the past six seasons have been above average, with 218 twisters hitting in those three months last year.
As our climate changes, more of us are seeing extreme weather that we’ve never encountered before. Read on for some dangers that can arise when the weather gets weird and how you can protect yourself.
CRISIS: A tornado is headed in your direction
Not all tornadoes look like the one in The Wizard of Oz. Many aren’t even visible; they can be wrapped in rain, cloud cover or darkness. The following are telltale signs of hidden funnel activity: whirling dust or debris under thick clouds; rain and hail, followed by a fast, strong wind shift; a loud roar that doesn’t fade like thunder does. At night you may see blue, green or white flashes near ground level. That’s not lightning, though — it means wind is knocking around power lines. Heed all warnings on your phone, TV or radio.
The biggest tornado threat is debris (especially glass) riding 100-plus mph winds. At home, avoid windows and use small, centrally located rooms for shelter.
- Basements are best, but anywhere windowless, where you can use sturdy furniture, mattresses and thick blankets as protection from debris, will offer shelter.
- In a vehicle, try to drive away from the clouds; if that’s not an option, park the vehicle out of traffic lanes and seek shelter. If you have to stay in your car because of flying debris, keep your seat belt on and lower your head below window level, covering up with whatever’s available.
- If you’re stuck outside in the open, get away from trees or vehicles and lie on your belly, in the lowest place you can find. And if you have helmets on hand — sports, military, motorcycle — wear ’em.
Cellular service can be overloaded or disabled in a storm. Keep a battery-powered radio at home so you don’t miss tornado warnings, suggests Roger Edwards, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.
CRISIS: The power’s out
A blackout caused by an ice storm or blizzard can quickly turn deadly, due to hypothermia or the dangerous mistakes people make while trying to stay warm.
“The cold can make people do things they should know better than to attempt,” says retired Deputy Assistant Chief John Norman, a firefighter for nearly 50 years, including 27 with the New York City Fire Department. “I’ve seen people start a large fire in a bathtub and in metal barrels on wooden floors, which promptly ignite.”
One of the most common hazards is carbon monoxide buildup in homes when people use electricity generators placed too close to the house, Norman notes. A high concentration of the colorless, odorless gas can kill within five minutes.
Save yourself before the blackout …
- Stock an emergency box with flashlights, batteries, first aid supplies (including prescription medications), blankets, water and food.
- Wrap water pipes with insulation to keep them from freezing, and know how to shut off the main water line in case of a burst pipe.
- Fill your tank. Gas pumps run on electricity.
- Make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors work. Install them, if necessary.
During the blackout...
- Don’t bake. And never use your stove or oven to heat your home. This can lead to a fire or a buildup of carbon monoxide.
- Keep generators away from the house. Aim for at least 20 feet, for safety. Never run a generator in your garage, even with the door open.
- Drip it. Allow a trickle of water to run from at least one faucet, to keep the water moving so it won’t freeze and cause the pipes to burst.
CRISIS: There’s a fire in your chimney
It can sound like a freight train roaring through your living room, or gunshots, popping or crackling. Or you may hear nothing at all, even though there’s a blaze halfway up the inside of your chimney. Walk outside and look up; you’ll likely see dense black smoke billowing unnaturally out of your house.
“Slow-burning, long-lasting chimney fires can generate more than 2,100 degrees of heat,” notes Russ Dimmitt, educational director of the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA). Once a chimney fire has started, there’s little you can do besides hustle out of your house and call the fire department. But there are steps you can take to avoid this emergency.
- Always use well-seasoned wood. Cooler smoke generated by burning wet wood condenses on chimney walls, leaving a tarlike substance of highly flammable chemicals.
- Keep your wood dry. Even seasoned wood left in the rain can have a high moisture content. Check the dryness with a wood moisture tester (about $35).
- Use your nose. If you can smell smoke while burning wood or detect a smoky scent coming from your fireplace when it’s not in use, your fireplace isn’t working properly. Have your chimney inspected annually by a CSIA-certified chimney sweep.
CRISIS: You (or someone else) fell through the ice
If you see that someone has plunged into a frozen lake or river, don’t rush to the rescue. The last thing you need is to become victim number two, which is what will happen if you run onto the ice. Instead, call 911. Then:
- Find a bridge. Look for a long branch or other objects you can extend to the victim, or throw something to use as a float, suggests Jackie Lundstrom of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. In a pinch, have everyone remove their jackets, and tie the arms together to form an impromptu rope.
- If you fall through, swim. Don’t try to push yourself up vertically, as you would in a pool. Flutter kick to get your body horizontal, and pull yourself onto the ice like a seal, says Gordon Giesbrecht, director of the Laboratory for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg.
Never venture onto ice unless you’re sure it’s 4 to 5 or more inches thick. Even when you think it’s thick enough to hold you, anticipate falling through, says Gordon Giesbrecht, and have a plan for how you’ll manage if you do.
CRISIS: You’re caught in a flash flood
The top causes of flood-related drownings are driving into floodwater and walking in or near floodwater. Here’s why: Six inches of running water can knock someone off their feet, 12 inches of running water can move a vehicle, and 2 feet of still water can float a vehicle. If your tailpipe gets submerged, your car will stall. If your battery gets submerged, it will fail in 10 to 15 minutes.
And it’s very difficult to estimate the depth of water, especially at night. “No matter the size and weight of the vehicle, when water gets more than halfway up the tires, you’ve overcommitted,” says Michael Berna, a Maryland-based swift-water trainer for Rescue 3 International. “I’ve seen fire engines float away.”
If the road ahead is submerged, don’t take the risk of trying to forge through. Instead:
- Find and stay on high ground. This should always be your first choice.
- If your vehicle gets swamped, Berna advises the following: Climb out your window and remain on the roof of the vehicle. If you can’t do that, stay in the vehicle as long as possible. Notify 911 with your location and vehicle description. Lower your windows several inches while you still have battery power, which will make it easier for first responders to break the window, if necessary.
- If your car starts to float, or if water fills the passenger area, it’s time to get out and swim for safety as best you can (this is the last resort and the best reason not to be in the flood to begin with).
Jeff Csatari is the author of Your Best Body at 40+ and many other books. He has also written for Men’s Health, Popular Mechanics and Men’s Journal.