Helping Clients Prepare for Extreme Winter Weather: Resources for Before, During, and After the Storm

Many parts of the U.S. are currently experiencing winter conditions including snow, ice, and extremely cold temperatures. Service providers should ensure that newcomer clients understand the necessary steps to prepare for extreme winter weather and have adequate resources for coping with winter storms and hazards. Many clients have never experienced cold winter environments and may need extra support. This post is part one of a twopart series on staying safe in extreme winter weather. 

Understanding Winter Weather Terms

There are many terms related to winter weather and it can be helpful to know the difference when listening to a winter weather forecast. Service providers may want to incorporate this vocabulary into newcomers’ cultural orientation (CO) or English Language Learning (ELL) classes, or to hold workshops dedicated specifically to winter safety 

  1. Blizzard: a storm expected to have lots of snow and wind, with very cold temperatures. People’s ability to see during a blizzard is greatly reduced. During a blizzard, people are strongly advised to stay at home, indoors.  
  2. Freezing rain: when water falls as rain, then freezes as it makes contact with the cold ground. This creates a coat of ice on the surfaces with which the rain comes into contact (for example, roads, sidewalks, trees, and power lines).  
  3. Frostbite: when exposure to extremely cold temperatures causes injury to parts of a person’s body—for example, a person’s fingers, toes, or nose. Frostbite is a serious condition that can lead to significant health consequences and be life-threatening.  
  4. Hypothermia: when cold weather causes a person’s body temperature to drop dangerously low. Young children and older adults are particularly at risk for hypothermia, especially if they are not properly dressed for the cold, or remain outside for too long. This can be life-threatening.  
  5. Black ice: when the ice (frozen water) on paved surfaces, such as roads and sidewalks, is so transparent it is almost invisible. The presence of black ice makes it more likely that people, or car tires, will slip.  
  6. Sleet: frozen raindrops. Unlike freezing rain, sleet freezes before it falls and hits the ground.  
  7. Snow: water vapor that freezes into tiny ice crystals, clumping together to make snowflakes.  
  8. Wind chill: what the air temperature feels like on a person’s skin. When there is wind chill, outside temperatures feel colder than what the thermometer technically measures. A person’s risk of developing hypothermia and frostbite increases with more wind chill.  
  9. Wintry mix: a combination (mixture) of snow, ice, and freezing rain. 


Additionally, there are different levels of winter weather watches, warnings, and advisories. Please refer to this helpful table from the National Weather Service to understand the differences between different weather watches and advisories.  

Emergency Communications  

Providers can consider establishing a mass text message or other advisory system to let clients know of impending adverse weather events. For more information, see Switchboard’s evidence summary—What are the Best Strategies for Emergency Preparedness and Emergency Information Dissemination Among Resettled Refugees? —and Welcoming America’s toolkit—Establishing and Maintaining Inclusive Emergency Management with Immigrant and Refugee Populations. 

Before the Storm

Service providers can take several steps to help clients prepare for winter storms. If possible, proactively reach out to clients to make sure they are aware of and prepared for the coming storm. You may want to prioritize contacting those who are elderly, have young children, have serious health conditions, are less mobile, or who may not be aware of weather conditions (for example, those very new to the U.S.). When helping clients prepare, take care to: 

  • Support clients in gathering emergency supplies. Make sure clients have emergency kits in their homes in case of power outages or restricted mobility due to snow or ice. Kits should include food, water, medications, flashlights, and blankets. For a full list, visit Settle In’s post Preparing an Emergency Kit or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Emergency Kit Checklist for Kids and Families 
  • Help clients winterize their homes. Clients should check their homes to make sure they are ready for winter. This includes, but is not limited to, making sure gutters are clear; installing insulation; checking and repairing leaks, particularly in the roof; and covering pipes that could be exposed to cold. Heating systems should be checked to ensure they are working properly. Chimneys or fireplaces should be professionally cleaned. Tree branches too close to the home, which may cause an issue in bad weather, should be trimmed. Clients may need assistance advocating with their landlords and/or property management companies to implement these changes.  
  • Assist clients in applying for energy assistance programs, when available,  to help pay bills. Planning with clients and applying early for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) can help clients avoid losing heating due to unaffordable utility bills.  
  • Help clients install and check smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Clients should check that living spaces have the proper number of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and that the batteries are working correctly. Experts recommend installing a smoke and carbon monoxide detector in every bedroom or sleeping area, with at least one detector per story, including the basement.   
  • Provide access to warm clothes. Consider organizing a winter clothing drive, especially because winter clothing can be expensive. Service providers should ensure that every client and family member has sufficient winter clothing, including warm pants, socks, long-sleeved shirts, jackets or coats, scarves, hats, gloves or mittens, and snow boots. Other local groups—religious communities, food banks, etc.—may also host clothing drives. Useful resources include One Warm Coat and Operation Warm. 
  • Support clients in following national, local, and school weather alerts. Help clients find and follow local news sites or weather apps for the latest weather updates. Share relevant resources on how to access updates about school closings or adjusted schedules.  
  • Emphasize the importance of charging all phones. Ask that clients fully charge their phones so they can still communicate if needed during a power outage. Power banks, or other back-up batteries, can be helpful resources; consider soliciting them as donations on your clients’ behalf. 
  • Describe how to salt or sand steps and sidewalks. Clients should put sand, rock salt, or cat litter on outside steps, sidewalks, or pathways to help prevent ice from forming.  
  • Recommend moving vehicles. If possible, clients should park their vehicles in a driveway, allowing snowplows to clear the road.  
  • Advise clients to bring people and pets indoors. Everyone should come inside before the storm hits, including pets.  
  • Inform clients about community warming centers in case of worst-case scenarios. If clients lose heating at home, or confront other home emergencies, knowing where in the community they can stay warm can be a helpful last resort. 


During the Storm

Share the following guidance with clients about what to do during a storm: 

  • Do not go outside. Until the storm has passed and the temperature is safe, exposure can be life-threatening. In blizzards, it is very difficult to see—people have gotten lost just steps from their doorway. Even a walk to your car can be dangerous. Use your phone to check on others.  
  • Do not drive. Unless absolutely necessary, do not drive during a winter storm. Ice, snow, sleet, freezing rain, wintry mix—any of these can lead to extremely dangerous driving conditions. Accidents increase during storms and can be fatal. Clients may need assistance advocating for themselves with their employers if they cannot come to work due to a winter storm.  
  • Use a safe heating source for warmth. Fires should only be lit in certified, legal woodstoves or fireplaces. Cooking stoves should never be used for warmth. Portable heaters must be kept far away from objects that can easily catch fire, especially curtains or clothing. Children should be kept away from heaters so they do not burn themselves. Cars should not be run for warmth in enclosed spaces (for example, a garage) because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, which is life-threatening.  
  • Plan for power outages. Ice can coat trees and power lines, causing damage. Stay away from downed power lines. Call 911 to report downed lines, as they are very dangerous. If your power goes out and you have a generator, never use the generator indoors. This can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, which is life-threatening.  
  • Protect your water pipes. Open cabinet doors to all pipes and leave a trickle of water running in all faucets to help prevent your pipes from freezing.  
  • Report power outages or other emergencies to your utilities company as soon as possible. Utilities companies are often responsible for fixing gas leaks or power outages. In other cases, your landlord holds that responsibility—make sure you also have your landlord’s emergency contact on hand. 


After the Storm

Clients may be required to shovel their own sidewalks after a storm. It is important to advise clients that heart attacks are a risk while shoveling snow. People should take frequent breaks while shoveling. People with health conditions should check with their healthcare providers about precautions to take. 

After the storm is over, when conditions are safe, winter weather can be fun! Here are some considerations to share for making winter play safe for all: 

  • Dress appropriately. Playing outside in the snow is a fun pastime for children and adults. Maximize the fun by making sure everyone is dressed warmly and appropriately. This is especially important for older adults, children, and babies. Also remember to take off warm clothes inside well-heated places—this is especially important for infants. Babies can become overheated quickly if they are left in their winter clothing in car seats, strollers, etc. 
  • Take breaks if it gets too cold. Clients should monitor themselves and any children for shivering, and go inside to warm up as needed. 
  • Sled safely. Everyone should wear helmets while sledding to protect against head injuries. It is also important not to sled in well-trafficked roads or near trees.  


Emergency Preparedness 


Multi-Lingual Tips for Staying Safe 


Assistance Programs 


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