"Abandoned vehicles line an exit ramp along I-75 South during the winter storm on January 29, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia."
Over the past day, thousands of people in Atlanta have been stranded at locations away from home, or even if their vehicles for up to 12 hours. As our society grows more accustomed to, and reliant on, the comforts of daily urban living, the rate at which these otherwise mundane forces of nature present serious risks to people will only increase. This disaster was caused by only 3" of snow! However, you don't have to let it get you. There are lessons to be learned from these events, and you can make sure that they never pose more than an inconvenience to you.
- Dress for the weather: Wear clothing that is appropriate for staying outside for extended periods of time. We all know that one guy that wears shorts year-round. Despite what he tells you, to keep his macho image intact, he is cold. He's just not usually outside long enough to have more than an uncomfortable change in his body temperature. So wear a jacket on a cool day, and upgrade to a heavy parka when it's really cold, even if you just running to the store. If you just can't bear to wear it, then at least take it with you in the car.
- Avoid "Normalcy Bias": Normalcy bias is the tendency to assume things will continue to be normal, predictable, and safe. At what point during a cold and boring 12-hour stay inside your car does it dawn on you that "Why don't I just get out and walk to safety?" You need to take action quickly in an emergency. It may be reasonable to wait in your car for a little while, to see if help may come, but if your situation hasn't improved in maybe 30 minutes, it's probably time to start doing something.
- Wear practical footwear: Even if you do get out of your car and walk, you won't get very far in sandals or high heels. I personally recommend that you always be wearing footwear that you could travel on foot for several miles in (e.g. tennis shoes, hiking boots). I know that for some people that are more fashion oriented that's an impossibility. You can at least do it when you anticipate weather, or again, keep some in your car that you can change into.
- Fill up the gas tank when it drops to 1/2 full: Yes, it's inconvenient to fill up with gas "all the time", but it's also inconvenient to sit in your car for 12 hours worrying if help will come to save you and your freezing kids. The average car will idle for approximately 24 hours on a full tank of gas (big vehicles use more gas, but also have bigger fuel tanks). By never letting the tank get below half, you are guaranteeing yourself about 12 hours of warmth (or cooling in the summer), if you need it. Most vehicles also get around 300+ miles per tank, so it also means you'll have enough gas to get to a stranded friend or family member up to 75 miles away, and make it back, without filling up.
- Keep blankets in your vehicle: I keep several inexpensive $10 moving blankets in my truck, inside an old duffel bag. They are tremendously useful, and practically disposable, for all sorts of tasks, such as a ground mat for changing a flat tire in the snow (and wrapping up the dirty spare once it's changed), a traction aid for a stuck vehicle, catching brass while shooting, laying over the seats while you slide lumber over them, etc. What really counts is that in an emergency they are warm due to their thick felt padding. Think of it like a Swiss Army Knife, but warmer.
- Keep your vehicle in good repair: There have been cars broken down on the side of every big traffic jam I've ever been in. Breaking down on a warm spring day may be an inconvenience, but breaking down in the middle of a severe winter storm can be a death sentence. Don't put off making those repairs that you know are necessary, if you can find a way to take care of them today. If you're the type of person that honestly just won't take care of it, realize that, and buy a new car that won't have problems for several years.
- Don't wait for authority figures to make decisions: A large portion of the problem is being blamed on schools and businesses sending people home at the same time. If you know you live in an area where 3" of snow is going to cause severe problems, do something about it early. Do not assume that authorities have all the information, or aren't encumbered by their own politics and communications issues. The earlier you make a decision, the more time you buy yourself to act, especially if it gets you out ahead of the crowds.
- Have some water, and maybe some snacks, in your car: What I do is keep 2 cases of bottled water in the truck. I take bottles out of one case, and once it's empty, I rotate the second one forward and buy a new one to put behind it. If you need to wait in the car, or head out on foot, during a winter storm, you will want something to drink. If it happens in the summer heat, you will definitely want something to drink. A little snack wouldn't hurt either, but remember, "don't eat if you don't have anything to drink" - digesting food would only dehydrate you more.
- Be mentally and physically tough: Be someone who is out helping others, not the one needing help. There really isn't a lot that separates the first responders that are out in the storm, from someone stuck out in the storm, besides mindset. Which one do you want to be? Be ready to thrive in tough situations, and test your skills regularly.
- Make sure your kids live by these principles too: Getting your kids used to being prepared early in life makes it "normal" to them, and sets them up for a lifetime. The only thing worse than falling victim to a disaster is one day getting a call that your children have.
What other lessons can be learned? Leave a comment below and tell us.