A half-inch of snow that fell on the Washington, D.C. area Wednesday night caused dozens of traffic pile-ups as cars, trucks and buses slid out on icy streets. And the real blizzard was still two days away.
What can you do if it happens to you?
Here's some advice on how to keep your cool and stay warm if you're caught in traffic or if public transport leaves you stranded:
Always dress right
Even if you don't think you'll get caught in the snow, be ready for it. Wear layers, have an extra coat or sweater in the car or in a bag with you, and have a pair of sensible shoes or boots. Your 10-minute commute could turn into a snowy hike if the roads back up.
Keep your hands and toes warm. They're vulnerable to frostbite, and you might not feel it coming on. In extreme cold, the body diverts blood to the vital organs.
Skip the booze
Alcohol may make you feel warm for a moment, but that comfortable flush means you're losing body heat to the outside air. And alcohol impairs your judgment so you might take unnecessary risks — like leaving a cozy car to walk.
Your house or car will likely be the safest place, even if it means being uncomfortable in a days-long traffic jam or an extended power outage.
Keep your car ready
A blanket in the car can mean a lot if you slide off the road into a ditch. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a long list of goodies to keep inside a car, just in case. They include a flashlight with extra batteries, water, a little snack food, chains or rope, booster cables, a first-aid kit, emergency flares and road salt or sand.
Here's what to look for if you are outside for a long time in the cold:
- Shivering, dizziness, nausea, fast breathing, rapid heart rate, trouble speaking and mental confusion are all signs of hypothermia and call for emergency action to get warm.
- A prickly feeling on the skin, fingers or toes can signal frostbite. Red or pink skin will turn white, which is a danger signal. Get that skin covered. Gentle — not brisk — rubbing can push blood into the affected area and warm it. Breathing gently on the affected area can help. Don't use direct heat from a stove or a fire on frostbitten skin — putting hands or feet under someone's armpit can help, and warm — not hot — water may also help.
- Shoveling snow can be dangerous, too. Watch your back, use a smaller shovel to make sure you're not lifting too much weight, don't eat a heavy meal before you go out to shovel, and call 911 if you feel sudden chest pain, arm weakness or sudden nausea under or after exertion