The second arctic blast in a month is pushing temperatures down into the negative double digits in parts of the country this week, threatening to rattle the bones of residents of even the heartiest Midwestern states.
In Wisconsin, temperatures hovered just below zero Tuesday. At about 10 am, the air temperature in Madison was minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of 22 below. In other parts of the country, those temperatures would bring many cities and towns to a grinding halt, but not in Wisconsin.
“It’s not too bad,” says Tod Prichard of Wisconsin Emergency Management, “though this morning was kind of chilly.” Chilly or not, Wisconsin schools were open Tuesday, as were state and local government offices.
But even Wisconsinites were caught off guard earlier this month when the mercury plunged into the negative 20’s and 30’s.
“Unfortunately when we had that first cold snap come through, we had four deaths,” Mr. Prichard says. “As we get another batch coming our way we are trying to warn people ahead of time and we are working with the state health department to set up warming shelters for folks whose furnace goes out or lose power.”
So what can people do to withstand the icy blast?
Even before winter starts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that homeowners have their heating equipment and chimney’s inspected to ensure that they function properly and safely through the worst of the winter. FEMA recommends these checks be done every year.
Prichard recommends that residents keep their thermostat set to 67 degrees F, even overnight, especially for seniors and children who are more susceptible to cold. “These kind of stretches are not the time to save money,” he says. "During these cold snaps you really have to make sure that you are keeping a good solid temperature inside your home.”
Frigid temperatures can pose a threat to household pipes, especially in more temperate regions of the country where insulation is less common. But even insulated pipes can become compromised when temperatures dip below minus 15 F., Pritchard says.
Residents can wrap exposed pipes in blankets and newspaper to provide makeshift insulation. Keeping the tap open slightly will help prevent the pipes from bursting should the water freeze.
When heading outside, people should dress in layers and try to cover as much exposed skin as possible. When the wind chill drops to 20 below, frostbite can set in in just 20 to 30 minutes. At 30 below, exposed skin can develop frostbite in as little as five minutes, Prichard says. “This is no time to make a fashion statement,” Prichard says. “You’ve got to wear your big old ugly winter hat.”
Such temperatures can be equally dangerous for pets, says John Baillie, a Lake Elmo, Minn. veterinarian and president of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association. While most cats make the decision to stay indoors in extreme cold, dogs are more likely to venture outside. “If you’re getting cold in five minutes outside, so is your dog unless it’s running around,” he says.
Dogs can succumb to frostbite if left outside for an extended period of time. Kennel dogs that live outdoors year-round need a shelter from the wind that is small enough that their body heat keeps the space warm, he says.
In general, animals know how to keep themselves warm, Dr. Baillie says. Pets tend to find a way to communicate to their owners that they are ready to go inside, and stray and wild animals find somewhere to hole up and get out of the wind.
“Hospitals are treating people for frostbite all the time,” Baillie says. “I have not seen an animal patient this winter yet for frostbite. They’re really not very susceptible to it because they are smarter than we are.”
Subzero temperatures also take a toll on cars. Cold weather puts an additional load on the battery, reducing the amount of power it can produce, says Mike Calkins, a technical service manager for the AAA automotive club. “The best thing to do is to make sure that your whole car battery starting and charging systems are in top shape,” he says. AAA recommends that drivers have their car tested at the beginning of each winter if the battery is three or more years old.
“The way you can help out the electrical system is trying to keep the engine as warm as possible,” Mr. Calkins says. Drivers that do not have access to a garage can invest in block heaters or battery blankets to ensure that the car will be able to start in the morning.
AAA and FEMA both stress that drivers should pack an emergency preparedness kit in the back seat of the car in the event of a breakdown or accident. Such a kit should include a cell phone, blankets, warm clothing, a bit of food and water, sand or salt for traction, and extra gloves and towels to dry off after attempting to clear snow from around the car.