Be prepared for any weather at home or on campus

Before last weekend’s winter storm dumped over 25cm of snow on the Toronto area, people were urged to stock up on food in case they were snowed in. But how many people are actually prepared when the worst strikes?

Over one million people were left without power in January 1998, when an ice storm hit eastern Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, with about 100,000 people seeking refuge in shelters.

One year later, in January 1999, then Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman called in the Canadian Armed Forces to clear the snow from the streets after a record snowfall of over 118 cm in less than two weeks. Over five million people were affected.

Left: Snow covered trees

"Storms do happen and it’s always best to be prepared ahead of time," says Kathy Branton, manager of York’s emergency preparedness program.

Storms can hit with such speed and ferociousness that people can be stranded at home or at the office.

Everyone should have a 72-hour kit at home with a three-day supply of food and water tucked away, says Branton. If the power goes out – as it did during the 1998 ice storm – the water from the tap may need to be boiled first before being consumed, but without power there may be no way to do that.

Flashlights, batteries, a can opener, essential medicines and toiletries, a first-aid kit, age-appropriate toys for the family, such as games, books and cards, family identification and glow sticks are all good things to have in a kit. A couple of glow sticks can light up a room eliminating the need for candles, which can be dangerous.

"I put all my items in a hockey bag," says Branton. "It’s easily transportable if you need to move quickly and if you put them all together in one kit, they’re easily found in an emergency."

Cash is also a good thing to have stashed in the kit. "If you need to run to the store to stock up on essentials and the debit system is down, your debit card isn’t going to do you any good," says Branton.

Right: An ice storm in the early 1900s knocks down power lines

There are a surprising number of things that don’t work without power that people usually take for granted, such as that electric can opener on the counter, the microwave, the coffee maker and the kettle. People who have cottages up north may find their power is off for days at a time following a storm.

"Even having a radio, with batteries, is good to have around so at least you can turn it on to hear what’s happening. Or get a crank radio – they usually cost a bit more, but they’ll last about four hours before needing to be cranked again," says Branton.

If there is a power failure, Branton says turn off all electrical appliances and unplug most of them, that way when the power is restored, a power surge won’t blow the circuits.

If the heating system fails, Branton says, avoid opening doors in order to keep the warmth in, dress in layers, crack open a window slightly for ventilation and to avoid a build up of carbon monoxide, start using a safe and approved alternate heat source before the house cools down and consider using one room for primary heating and use. If pipes are at risk of freezing, open a tap just a little to keep the water flowing.

Left: After a winter storm

As for getting stuck on campus, a toiletries kit with toothpaste, a toothbrush, soap, cream, deodorant and make-up will go a long way. It’s also a good idea to keep an extra shirt at the office.

"A lot of people don’t think of those kinds of things, but if you have a bad weather situation and you’re stuck here, it’s good to be able to at least brush your teeth and change your top," says Branton.

Again she says keep a bit of cash on hand or keep your YU card topped up in case of hunger or thirst. A few snacks and drinks can easily be kept in a drawer as well.

It’s also a good idea to keep your cell-phone charged and a spare charger on hand. And, keep the car’s gas tank at least half full at all times during the winter. "If you’re idling a lot while stuck in traffic during a storm, you can run out of gas pretty fast," says Branton.

People should also keep their furnace serviced to reduce the chance of it breaking down during a cold snap and always keep wood on hand if there’s a wood-burning fireplace or wood stove in the house.

Keep informed by checking out the following Web sites: Public Safety Canada, Emergency Management Ontario, Environment Canada, York University Weather Emergency and York University Emergency Preparedness.

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer