A rare white Christmas in Houston, 2004
Many areas of the country have already had a pretty good dose of winter. Blizzard conditions certainly spell winter to me down here on the third coast. For those of us in warmer climes the worst of winter is still to come.
I know for my friends and relatives in the north, our excitement at any temperature approaching freezing must seem a bit silly. Extreme cold in the southern US creates all sorts of problems. Our houses are not built to withstand long periods of below freezing weather. Our plumbing is exposed in the attic, usually without insulation unless we have gone back after the house was built to add wrap to the pipes. The last really deep freeze in Houston was Christmas week of 1989. The temperature got down to 9°F. There were several days where the temperature never got above freezing. That is cold anywhere, but in Houston that is a disaster. Pipes broke in attics all over town swamping plumbing companies with emergency calls. Many people who left town for the holidays returned to water flowing out their front doors as broken pipes thawed.
We happened to be visiting family in Oklahoma City that week. It was colder there, but they are more equipped to deal with winter weather. We were invited to drive down to Dallas to see the Cowboys play Green Bay at Texas Stadium on Christmas Eve. It was a mess. Almost all of the plumbing for the restrooms at the stadium had frozen. A lot of pipes had burst so the carpets were wet everywhere. The only restrooms working were in the club area at one end of the stadium. Luckily a lot of people stayed home. It was cold and miserable even though we were in a club box. I don’t remember anything about the game itself except that Dallas lost. That was loss number 15. The Cowpokes only notched one win for Jerry Jones’s first year of ownership of the Cowboys.
With the potential for some really cold weather on the horizon for us, we can take steps to mitigate potential damage and keep everything functioning. Think hurricane preparation. Actually a lot of our normal hurricane preparation can be brought into play with cold weather emergencies.
Pipe insulation with single degree temperatures in Houston homes will probably not give adequate protection. The best step to take is to cut off the water to the house and drain the pipes by opening faucets on the lower levels. That does require some preplanning for drinking and cooking water and for flushing toilets. Some recommend leaving a faucet running at a trickle. That could work, but if everyone in town does that, water pressure might be too low for emergencies like firefighting.
Plan for power outages, especially if frozen precipitation accompanies the cold weather. What will you do for lights? What will you do if you have no heat? Using candles for lights and stove tops for heat have had fatal results too many times. Space heaters while helpful in an emergency can be very hazardous. Use with care. If you plan to use a generator, have you tested it recently? Generators should be exercised regularly under load. Can you run the generator safely? Remember issues of electrical shock and carbon monoxide poisoning. In some ways, freezing weather may be more dangerous than dealing with the heat after a hurricane. Power outages will also shut down fuel services and grocery stores. Keep your pantry and gas tanks full.
Does your house receive power from a line dropped from a power pole as opposed to underground? If above ground are there any branches that could ice up then fall and knock the connection loose? Take care of those now.
In Houston, our cars are our lifelines. In addition to keeping fuel tanks topped off be sure to check other maintenance items. The battery condition, tire inflation, belts and windshield washer fluid (with anti-freeze) are great places to start. The worst possible time to break down is when the weather is freezing. With so many of the newer cars filled with long interval cooling fluids, the radiator coolant level is often overlooked. Go ahead and make sure your coolant is at the correct level and that your anti-freeze is actually working properly. If you still use a key to lock and unlock your car doors make sure the locks are well lubricated. Those locks get wet and freeze up. Better take care of it today instead of waiting out in the cold for the lock to thaw. Another cold weather trick is to cover your windshield with a thick cloth, cardboard or other material to keep the ice off when you are not driving. Make sure your windshield wiper arms are not frozen to the window before you try to use them. Windshield wiper motors are expensive to replace.
After you have taken care of yourself, do you have an elderly neighbor or know a family with low resources? This might be a good time to see what their plans look like in the event of a cold weather situation.
I have not mentioned cold weather precautions for pets, but they must be part of your preparedness equation. Pets are always part of the three “P’s” of winter preparedness, pipes, pets and plants.
As is always the case, a few minutes of preparation today and tomorrow could save a lot of inconvenience or danger later.
Cold Weather Preparedness, http://www.disastersrus.org/emtools/cold/cold.htm
Cold Weather Preparedness, http://mother-earth-journal.com/reader-resources/cold-
Cold Weather and Frozen Pipes, http://www.rmiia.org/Homeowners/Cold_Weather_Frozen_Pipes.asp
AAA Offers Cold Weather Car Care Advice, http://www.scnow.com/news/local
Extreme Cold, A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety, http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/pdf/cold_guide.pdf