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Published on March 01, 2022

How to stay safe in a storm

Storm Safety

Just before the last storm, my daughter and her partner bought a new generator. They have lost power in every storm since they moved into their house in Harwich a few years ago. Since they now have a newborn baby, keeping the heat on seemed more important than ever. Her partner set the generator up in the garage, opened the garage door and both windows and thought all was well.

Fortunately, they have a working carbon monoxide detector. At about 10 that night, the family was awakened by the screeching alarm and they were able to safely evacuate before any harm was done.

“It’s important to keep generators outside,” said Emergency Medicine Physician Michael Rest, MD, at Falmouth Hospital Emergency Physicians. “If the garage is connected to the house, even having the garage door open would not be sufficient.”

While the days are getting longer, and spring is near, Cape Cod is not out of the woods when it comes to winter storms. We asked Dr. Rest about some of the other winter dangers and the most common injuries or health issues he sees at Falmouth Hospital during storms - and his advice for preventing them.

Have appropriate alarms and make sure they have working batteries.

Having smoke and carbon monoxide detectors is an obvious choice if people lose electricity, he said. Even if people don’t have a generator, a lot of folks try heating the house with their gas stove which can also build up carbon monoxide, or they have candles burning, which could potentially start a fire.

“We definitely see an increase in fire-related issues as well as carbon monoxide (poisoning),” he said.

Seek shelter at one of the emergency shelters that are part of Barnstable County’s emergency management plan.

“We see a lot of issues with electricity and heat going out with people trying to stay home even when the house gets cold,” Dr. Rest said. “We get elderly folks coming in with hypothermia or significant dehydration and weakness because they’ve been in bed for two days and haven’t gotten out to eat or drink.”

Another population that should consider staying at a shelter during a storm are those who are dependent on electricity for their medical supplies. It could be a person with diabetes who needs the refrigerator to store their insulin, or a person who uses a nebulizer for lung problems. Another is people who have an oxygen concentrator to breathe.

“That’s actually a really common one,” he said. “People come into the ER and they will be there for a couple of days waiting for electricity to come back because they don’t have oxygen at home.”

If there is an acute medical issue, the ER is the place to go, but the emergency shelters are more appropriate for those who just need electricity to power their medical equipment. It’s also much better to go to a shelter than trying to wait it out and then having an emergency.

Make sure you have enough of your medications.

If a storm is in the forecast, stocking up on medications is an easy thing to do to avoid health issues.

Don’t drive around during or immediately after the storm.

Car accidents from driving on snowy or ice roads is a very common problem that lands people in the ER.

“When people are housebound, they tend to get a little stir crazy,” Dr. Rest said. “After a big storm everybody heads to the coast because they want to see the big crashing waves and see what has flooded and which trees have been knocked down. I think it’s typical but we certainly see injuries from that. From a disaster management standpoint that’s a worst-case scenario.”

It’s also important not to drive through deep puddles because your car could stall out and you could get stranded.

If you do have to drive, make sure you have a safety kit and be as careful as possible.

The best advice is to just stay home, but if you do get stranded in your car, it’s better to stay put rather than try to walk home, Dr. Rest said. While you are stranded, a few supplies will make you safer. It’s a good idea to have a blanket, just in case it takes a while to be rescued. A mylar heat shield is also a good idea because it doesn’t take up much space. A hat, scarf, gloves, flashlight, water bottle, and granola bars are also good ideas.

The National Safety Council listed the following other things to keep in your car:

  • Jumper cables
  • Tool kit or multi-purpose tool
  • First aid kit
  • Car charger for your cell phone
  • Cat litter for traction
  • Car charger for your cell phone
  • Spare tire, jack and wheel wrench

Be especially mindful of safety during cleanup efforts.

“Most of the things we see are post-storm and part of the cleanup piece of it,” Dr. Rest said. “We see a lot of falls, particularly when it’s snowy out. It’s inevitable the day after a snow storm, we see lots and lots of wrist fractures, rib fractures and ankle fractures from people slipping on the ice as they are trying to do the cleanup.

There is also definitely an uptick in heart attacks from the exertion of shoveling. This is especially true for people who have existing heart problems or who are normally quite sedentary. Dr. Rest’s best advice is to try to find someone else to do the shoveling, whether it is a neighborhood kid or a professional snow removal company. If you absolutely have to shovel yourself, do it in smaller stages to avoid overtaxing your heart.

“We also see snow blowing and chainsaw accidents from people sticking their fingers where they shouldn’t be stuck to unclog things, Dr. Rest said. “It’s pretty classic with a heavy snowstorm the snow blower will get jammed and people hit it with their toes or try to stick their hands in to get a chunk of ice out. Then it becomes unstuck and it recoils and it spins and it catches whatever body part is there. So, we see a lot of hand injuries.”

Dr. Rest’s last piece of advice? “If you have a vulnerable neighbor, make sure you check in on them.”