Severe weather and storms are a common hazard in the Puget Sound. Storms that affect the Pacific Northwest throughout the year may include wind, snow, ice, hail, thunder, lightening, and potentially tornadoes.Snow storms or blizzards, which are snow storms accompanied by blowing wind or drifting snow, occur occasionally both in Washington State and the Puget Sound. As exemplified in the “Holiday Blast” storm of 1996-1997, snow storms can also be associated with other natural hazards such as flooding and landslides, given the right conditions.An ice storm can occur when rain falls out of the warm, moist upper layer of atmosphere into a dry layer with freezing or sub-freezing air near the ground. Rain freezes on contact with the cold ground and accumulates on exposed surfaces. Hail storms occur when freezing water in thunderstorm type clouds accumulate in layers around an icy core. Wind added to hail can batter crops, structures and transportation systems.
Thunderstorms can bring heavy rains, strong winds, hail and lightening. A thunderstorm is formed from a combination of moisture, rapidly rising warm air and a force capable of lifting air such as a warm and cold front, a sea breeze, or a mountain. All thunderstorms containing lightning. Thunderstorms may occur singly, in clusters, or in lines. Thus, it is possible for several thunderstorms to affect one location in the course of a few hours. Some of the most severe weather occurs when a single thunderstorm affects one location for an extended time.
Lightning is an electrical discharge that results from buildup of positive and negative charges within a thunderstorm. When the buildup becomes strong enough, lightning appears as a “bolt.” This flash of light usually occurs within the clouds or between the clouds and the ground. A bolt of lightning reaches a temperature approaching 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a split second. The rapid heating and cooling of air near the lightning causes thunder. Lightning is a major threat during a thunderstorm.
Although rare, tornadoes are the most violent weather phenomena known to man. A tornado is characterized by a twisting, funnel-shaped cloud. It’s produced by a thunderstorm and occurs when cold air overrides a layer of warm air, forcing the warm air to rise rapidly. Four tornadoes have been sighted in King County since 1950. It is important to be prepared for all potential severe storm hazards, regardless of frequency.
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What to do to prepare for severe weather:
- Be prepared for power outages that often accompany severe weather like wind, snow and flooding.
- Prepare for the possibility that you may have to stay home for several days.
- Know safe routes from your home, work and school in case you need to evacuate.
- Learn the signs of hypothermia and how to treat it. Hypothermia is a common problem during cold winter weather, especially with young children and older adults who are most vulnerable. To prevent hypothermia:
- Wear warm, multi-layered clothing with good hand and feet protection (avoid overly constricting wrist bands, socks and shoes).
- Wear warm headgear – significant heat is lost through the head.
- If possible, change into dry clothes whenever clothing becomes wet.
- Find appropriate shelter to stay warm.
- Pick a safe place in your home where family members can gather during a thunderstorm. This should be a place where there are no windows, skylights, or glass doors, which could be broken by strong winds, flying debris, or hail.
- Keep an eye on the sky. Pay attention to weather clues around you that may warn of imminent danger. Look for darkening skies, flashes of lightning, or increasing wind, which may be signs of an approaching thunderstorm. Listen for sounds of thunder. If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. Go to safe shelter immediately.
- Stay aware of your surroundings. Look for places you might go should severe weather threaten.
- Prepare for flooding and landslides that often accompany severe storms.
Preparing your home:
- Prepare for power outages. Have a plan and supplies needed to stay warm.
- Consider purchasing a generator, especially if you or a member of your family relies on electricity for medical equipment. Strictly adhere to safety requirements.
- Keep trees and shrubbery trimmed. Make trees more wind resistant by removing diseased or damaged limbs, then strategically remove branches so the wind can blow through. Strong winds frequently break weak limbs and hurl them at great speed, causing damage or injury when they hit.
- Winterize your house or any other structure that may provide shelter for your family, neighbors, livestock or equipment. Clear rain gutters; repair roof leaks and cut away tree branches that could fall on a house or other structure during a storm.
- Consider purchasing one or more pumps to use to remove water in and around your home during heavy rains or flooding.
- Insulate pipes with insulation or newspapers and plastic and allow faucets to drip a little during cold weather to avoid freezing.
- Learn how to shut off water valves (in case a pipe bursts).
- Prepare for your pets. If you cannot bring them indoors, provide adequate shelter to keep them warm and make sure that they have access to water that is not frozen.
Preparing your car:
- Keep cars and other vehicles fueled and in good repair. Winterize your car by checking the battery, ignition system, radiator, thermostat, lights, flashers, exhaust, heater, defroster, brakes, etc. Ensure that your car has adequate antifreeze, windshield washer fluid and oil.
- Make an emergency kit that stays in your vehicle. Be sure to include those items specific to winter weather.
- If traveling by car during a winter weather advisory or winter storm watch, do so in the daylight. Don’t travel alone. Keep others informed of your schedule and route, and stay on main roads. Avoid driving during a winter storm warning or blizzard warning.
What to do during severe weather:
- Monitor your NOAA weather radio and keep a local radio and/or television on for information and emergency instructions.
- If advised to evacuate, tell others where you are going. Turn off utilities if told to do so.
- Watch out for and stay away from fallen power lines. Report fallen power lines and broken gas lines to utility companies immediately.
- Stay away from storm-damaged areas. You may be putting yourself at further risk.
During a thunder or lightning storm:
If you’re inside:
- Avoid electrical equipment and telephones. Lightning could follow the wire. Television sets are particularly dangerous at this time.
- Avoid bathtubs, water faucets, and sinks because metal pipes can transmit electricity.
- Electrical surges from lightening can damage appliances and electronics, so it’s best if you can unplug them. Avoid using the telephone or any electrical appliances during the storm. If lighting strikes, telephone lines and metal pipes can conduct electricity. Leaving electric lights on, however, does not increase the chances of your home being struck by lightening.
If you’re outside:
- A sturdy building is the safest place to be during a thunderstorm. Take shelter in a substantial, permanent, enclosed structure.
- Avoid open gazebos, picnic shelters, golf carts, baseball dugouts and bleachers, which are unprotected and often located in isolated open areas that are more of a target for lightning.
- If no buildings are available, take shelter in an enclosed vehicle. Keep windows closed. Rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide no protection from lightning. However, the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you’re not touching metal. Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside the vehicle than outside.
- As a last resort and if no structure is available, go to lower ground and find an open place away from trees, poles, or metal objects. Have as little contact with the ground as possible. Squat low to the ground. Place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible. Do not lie flat on the ground – this will make you a larger target.
- Avoid tall structures such as towers, tall trees, fences, telephone lines, power lines, cell towers, etc.
- Avoid natural lightning rods such as golf clubs, fishing poles, etc. Lightning is attracted to metal and poles or rods.
- If you are boating or swimming, get to land, get off the beach and find shelter immediately. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity.
- If you are in the woods, find an area protected by a low clump of trees. Never stand underneath a single large tree in the open.
- If you are in an isolated level field or open area and you feel your hair stand up on end, this may be an indication that lightening is about to strike. Make yourself the smallest target possible and minimize contact with the ground. Quickly crouch on the balls of your feet, bend forward, putting hands on your knees. Do not lie flat on the ground.
If you’re driving:
- Pull safely onto the shoulder of the road and stop, making sure you are away from trees or other tall objects that could fall on the vehicle. Stay in the car and turn on the emergency flashers until the heavy rains subside. Heavy rains produced by thunderstorms can greatly reduce visibility. Turn on emergency flashers so to alert other drivers and improve visibility.
- Avoid contact with metal or conducting surfaces outside or inside the vehicle. The steel frame or a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you’re not touching metal. Rubber tires provide no protection from lightning.
If someone is struck by lightning:
- Call 9-1-1 immediately to get help from emergency medical servcies.
- Give first aid. If breathing has stopped, begin rescue breathing. If the heart has stopped, a trained person should give CPR. If the person has a pulse and is breathing, look and care for other possible injuries.
- Check for burns in two places. The injured person has received an electrical shock and may be burned where the electricity entered their body and where it left their body. Being struck by lightning can cause burns, nervous system damage, broken bones, and loss of hearing or eyesight. People struck by lightning carry no electrical charge and can be handled safely.
During a winter storm:
- If there’s a loss of power, use flashlights instead of candles. Candles are responsible for many major fires during winter weather conditions.
- Conserve fuel, if necessary, by keeping your house cooler than normal. Temporarily shut off heat to less-used rooms.
- Do not use charcoal or barbeques inside your home. If using kerosene heaters, maintain ventilation to avoid build-up of toxic fumes. Have a working carbon monoxide detector. Keep heaters at least three feet from things that can burn. Refuel kerosene heaters outside and per the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Dress warmly and stay dry.
- If you go outside for any reason, dress for the expected conditions. In cold weather wear several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing rather than one layer of heavy clothing. Outer garments should be lightly woven and water repellant. Mittens are warmer than gloves. Wear a hat. Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect lungs from extremely cold air. Wear sturdy, waterproof boots in snow or flooding conditions.
- Avoid exertion – cold weather puts an extra strain on the heart. If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s advice about shoveling snow or performing other hard work in the cold. Otherwise, if you have to do heavy work, dress warmly and work slowly.
- Watch for signs of hypothermia which can happen without immediately recognizing it. Symptoms include: uncontrolled shivering, slow or unclear speech, extreme tiredness, stumbling, confusion, semi-consciousness or unconsciousness. If a person becomes unconscious, get medical help immediately.
- When outside, be aware of tree limbs and other items that may fall due to heavy snow load or ice accumulation.
- Be watchful of snow accumulations on top of buildings that may stress the roof system. Some buildings may not be designed to carry large heavy snow loads.
If you are traveling:
- Avoid travel if possible. If you must travel, do so during daylight. Don’t travel alone and stay on main roads.
- Keep others informed of your schedule. Tell them your destination and when you expect to arrive. Ask them to notify authorities if you are late.
- Listen for radio or television reports of travel advisories issued by the National Weather Service.
- Do not travel in low visibility conditions.
- Avoid traveling on ice-covered roads, overpasses, and bridges if at all possible.
- Make sure you have tire chains and cell phone with you.
- Check and restock the winter emergency supplies in your car before leaving.
- Never pour water on your windshield to remove ice or snow as the glass may shatter.
- Don’t rely on the car to provide sufficient heat; the car may break down.
- Bring along additional warm clothing.
If a blizzard traps you in your car:
- Pull of the road, set hazard lights to flashing, and hang a distress flag from the radio aerial or window. If you have a cell phone, try to call for help. Remain in your vehicle; rescuers are most likely to find you there.
- Move anything you need from the trunk into the passenger area right way.
- Conserve fuel, but run the engine and heater about ten minutes each hour to keep warm, cracking the downwind window slightly to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure snow is not blocking the exhaust pipe to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide.
- Exercise by moving your arms and legs to improve your circulation and maintain body heat, but don’t overexert. Huddle with other passengers and use your coat for a blanket.
- In extreme cold use road maps, seat covers, floor mats, newspapers or extra clothing for covering anything to provide additional insulation and warmth.
- Take turns sleeping. One person should be awake at all times to look for rescue crews.
- Be careful not to waste battery power. Balance electrical energy needs such as the use of lights, heat and radio, with supply.
- Turn on the inside dome light so rescue teams can see you at night, but be careful not to run the battery down.
- Don’t eat snow because it will lower your body temperature.
- Don’t set out on foot unless you see a building close by where you know you can take shelter.
- If stranded in a remote area, stomp large block letters in an open area spelling out HELP or SOS and line with rocks or tree limbs to attract the attention of rescue personnel who may be surveying the area by plane or helicopter.
- Once the blizzard is over, you may need to leave the car and proceed on foot. Follow the road if possible. If you need to walk across open country, use distant points as landmarks to help maintain your sense of direction.
What to do after severe weather:
- After blizzards, heavy snows or extreme cold, check to see that no physical damage has occurred to your home and that water pipes are functioning.
- Wait for streets and roads to be cleared and/or opened before you attempt to drive anywhere.
- Check on neighbors, especially anyone who might need additional help, such as seniors or people with limited mobility.