What to Do Immediately After a Winter Storm

Alaina Tweddale

Old Man Winter has a nasty habit of blowing into town when we least expect him, which means we may not always be able to prepare for a storm before it strikes. But even after the snow has stopped falling, there are still steps you can take to stay safe and prevent further damage.

Learn more at The Hartford’s Catastrophe Information Center.

Look After Yourself and Loved Ones

If you or someone you’re with needs medical care after a storm, you can access the Red Cross’s First Aid app for advice. It offers interactive guidance on how to deal with many emergency situations, so you won’t be left wondering whether you’re hurting more than helping while you wait for the medical professionals to arrive. If you can download it, do so. It comes preloaded with content, so if your internet connection goes out, you’ll still be able to get the help you need.

If there’s a local evacuation or widespread damage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can help you decide on next steps. Log onto their website or download their app. The agency offers access to maps, directions to disaster recovery centers, and a portal through which you can apply for federal disaster assistance, if necessary.

Clear Ice and Snow from Your Roof

Snow and ice can place significant strain on your roof, gutters, and eaves, so it’s important to treat a downfall before any damage can occur. A specially-made roof rake can be used from the ground to clear snow from the lower three to six feet of your roof, where ice dams are most likely to form and damage most likely to occur. (Note: Do not scale your roof, especially in wet or icy conditions!)

If you don’t have a roof rake, avoid the temptation to use the garden rake or the shovel that you have lying around your shed. Asphalt shingles, in particular, become more brittle when the weather turns cold. A blow from one of those blunt tools can split or shatter the shingles, which can lead to more extensive (and expensive) damage than the storm alone.

If ice dams have formed and you’re able to safely reach your roof, fill a few nylon stockings with calcium chloride ice melt. Place the packets across the ice dam and the gutter so that a series of channels melts through the ice. By thawing the ice dams, you may be able to avoid leaks that could lead to ceiling and wall damage.

Shovel Snow to Keep Your Air Clean

It’s tempting to snuggle up in front of a fire on a snow day. But before you do, be sure your chimney isn’t blocked, warns Peter Duncanson, director of business operations with ServiceMaster Restore, one of the largest disaster restoration companies in the country.

That snow build-up “alongside and on top of a home can block heating vents and lead to carbon monoxide build-up inside,” he explains. Before you light a fire, be sure that your chimney flue, as well as your roof vents and fresh air intake pipes—those white plastic pipes that come out the side of your home—are free from snow.

Protect Your Pipes

When water in pipes freezes, it also expands, which can lead to a crack or a break. Unfortunately, most homeowners don’t realize that they’ve experienced damage until after an inconvenient and often expensive leak crops up. The good news, says Duncanson, is that homeowners often have a window of time during which they can act to mitigate that potential damage.

“If you suspect a pipe is frozen and it hasn’t cracked, there’s a chance you can thaw it using warm air,” he says. If you’re going to attempt this, proceed with caution and be sure to select a safe warming tool. “Never use an open flame or a blow torch” for this job, adds Duncanson. He recommends using a hair dryer instead.

Minimize Water Damage

If a pipe does freeze and crack, the resulting water damage can sometimes be severe. The faster you are able to remove standing water, the less likely you are to suffer damage due to bacterial or mold growth. A professional can use a high-powered vacuum and moisture extractor to thoroughly dry a flooded space in just three to four days but “there are things a homeowner can do” on their own, advises Duncanson.

To start, set your home temperature to somewhere between 75 and 80 degrees. “One of the worst things people can do is to turn the temperature up too high,” he says. Air heated to above 80 degrees will hold more moisture and create an environment that encourages mold growth. And if you have a dehumidifier, turn it on. It can help control the moisture level in your home.

To remove any standing water, start with your wet/dry vacuum—“Don’t use your household vacuum for this,” warns Duncanson—and then supplement your efforts with a mop and a towel. Finally, set up some fans to circulate the air in the home. The movement of air can help hasten the drying process.

The goal is to remove as much water as you can, but the key is to act fast. It can take two to three days for a new mold growth to take root but, if you’ve had a mold problem in the past, dormant mold can start to regrow within hours. If the leak came through the sewage system, you could experience bacterial growth, which can double in size every 15 minutes. The sooner you’re able to remove the water, the less likely you are to experience long-term consequences.

Take Care While Driving

Many people still have to drive to work after a storm hits, but there are precautions they can take to stay safe. Even if the road has been plowed, prepare to encounter unexpected ice. Take it slowly and make sure there is at least an eight-second buffer between your car and the car in front of you.

That snow that’s been plowed and piled on the side of the road can create another hazard. Snow banks decrease visibility, which increases the chance of a collision. Stay extra vigilant as you keep an eye out for pedestrians and other vehicles.

Finally, if you’ve “driven over a large piece of ice, it could damage your exhaust system or oil pan,” says Jonas Sickler, marketing director at ConsumerSafety.org. “Check for leaks before getting back in your car.”

Remove Ice and Snow from Around Your Vehicle

A winter storm can even cause damage to parked cars, particularly if they’re parked on the street when a plow comes through. Before starting your car, take a quick look at your exhaust pipe. “As helpful as snow plows are, they could also jam snow into your exhaust pipe, causing a dangerous build-up of carbon monoxide inside your car,” explains Sickler.

Street parkers also find that slow plows often bury car tires under a layer of snow and ice. If you didn’t notice that your tires were trapped before you entered your car, “you’ll know because your tires and steering wheel will begin to vibrate. It could result in misalignment and tire damage,” warns Sickler. You could also damage the undercarriage of your car. To avoid costly repairs, take a few minutes to dig your car out from the snow before you attempt to drive.

Assess Damage

Once you know that your family, home, car, and possessions are safe, begin assessing any damage that might have occurred during or as a result of the storm. This includes damage to your roof, windows, siding, windshields, tires, and more. As you make your inspection, take photos. These will come in handy if you file an insurance claim.

If you’re insured by The Hartford, you can file a claim online or by calling 1-800-243-5860. You’ll be asked to describe what happened and explain the damage to your home and/or car. The Hartford will work with you to assess your situation and a claims professional will call you back within one business day to offer options and answer questions. Then, you can repair the damage and get on with your life.

READ MORE: 9 Apps to Help You Stay Safe in an Emergency

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