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Severe Winter Storms: How to Prepare, Stay Safe, and File a Claim

A Major Disaster Declaration was approved by President Biden on February 20, 2021 for the entire state of Texas due to a severe winter storm that crippled the state’s energy infrastructure, leaving millions of residents without power and potable water for days in freezing temperatures. Subsequent Disaster Declarations were approved for the states of Oklahoma and Louisiana.  

Severe winter storms can cause tremendous damage and loss of life. State and local governments that are not sufficiently prepared to handle these types of storms may not have the equipment, resources, and plans in place to maintain basic infrastructure. The severe winter storm this past February, and subsequent storms that have hit the states of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska this March, have called nationwide attention to the hazards of winter storms and how best to prepare for them.

We’ve collected these tips from the CDC, FEMA, and the Red Cross to help you prepare for and survive the effects of the recent winter storm and future ones as well. As millions of homeowners assess damage to homes and property, there are also tips here to help you prepare for insurance and FEMA claims.


Concerned about severe winter storm damage?

Use RocketEvidence to capture video before and after the storm,
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How do I prepare for a severe winter storm?

The CDC, Red Cross, and FEMA have excellent resources and information to help you prepare for winter storm events. Links to these resources can be found at the bottom of this article. Here are some of the most important tips we found.

Protect yourself, your family, and your pets

Severe winter storms present specific types of challenges when it comes to safety, and COVID-19 has added an extra layer of concerns. Here are some recommendations for what you should have on hand and what you should guard against when making preparations.

Stay Informed: Weather forecasts aren’t always accurate, but it pays to stay on top of weather news during the winter so that you can prepare in advance for potentially dangerous storms.

Food and Water: The CDC and FEMA recommend having at least a 3-day supply of non-perishable food and water for you, your family, and your pets. The CDC recommends storing a 2-week supply of water if possible, and provides expert guidance on additional items to have on hand, how much water per person you should plan for, and how to properly store and maintain your food and water supplies. We provide a link to that guidance at the end of this article.

As we are writing this article, emergency professionals are already rethinking the 3-day supply recommendation for severe winter storms. If you live in an area that is now seeing more frequent severe winter storm activity, you may want to consider adjusting your plan as a 3-day supply may not be enough to get through that type of emergency. 

Safety: Staying warm is one of the most important safety factors during a severe winter storm event. Efforts to stay warm, however, can lead to other safety concerns. We’ll cover those concerns below in sections on how to protect your property and how to stay safe. Here, we’ll cover what FEMA and the Red Cross recommends you have on hand should you lose power or need to go outside.

  • Emergency kit with replenished supplies
  • Extra medical supplies and prescription medications
  • Emergency radio
  • Communication devices and plans for charging them
  • Basic hand tools
  • Flashlights, candles, and matches
  • Ample heating fuel
  • Warm clothing for each family member: Warm coat, mittens, hat, water resistant or waterproof boots
  • Extra warm blankets
  • Supplies to clean up after pets that normally eliminate outside
  • Important documents in a sealed container

COVID-19: Many were caught off guard when the severity of the winter storm that hit Texas overwhelmed the state’s power grid. Many residents were left in the cold for days on end, and local authorities had to open up warming stations and shelters. These are obviously congregate settings, and so important items to add to emergency kits include hand sanitizer and face masks.

Protect your home

Three of the biggest hazards and sources of property damage during a severe winter storm are burst pipes, carbon monoxide poisoning, and fire. FEMA offers these recommendations:

  • Insulate your water pipes
  • Install battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors
  • Replace batteries in smoke alarms and detectors
  • Have your roof checked for structural ability to handle large amounts of snow
  • Have fire extinguishers on hand and know how to use them
  • Keep chimneys cleaned and inspected every year

Prepare your car

Make sure your vehicle is in good condition and able to handle hostile temperatures and conditions in case you are somehow stuck on the road or need to evacuate your home. FEMA recommends getting your vehicle winterized by having it proactively checked by a mechanic before bad weather hits. Keep winter emergency supplies in your vehicle as well, including:

  • Food and water
  • Blankets
  • Flashlights
  • First aid kit
  • Emergency radio
  • Emergency tools and vehicle safety items 

How do I stay safe during a severe winter storm?

FEMA recommends staying off the road during Winter Storm Advisories, Watches, and Warnings. This is because roads are very dangerous during and immediately after a winter storm. However, sometimes it’s safer to evacuate your home than to stay. Whether you’re leaving or staying, here are some recommendations from FEMA and the Red Cross. 

If you are sheltering in place

Beyond preparing your home in advance for a severe winter storm event, here are some additional safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite and what to do if you detect them.
  • Do not use a generator, grill, camp stove, or charcoal burning device inside or even in a partially enclosed area.
  • Keep fire extinguishers on hand, make sure they’re not expired, and know how to use them.
  • Layer up with warm clothing and blankets.
  • Stay in touch with family, friends, and neighbors and have a communication plan in place for emergencies.
  • Keep pets indoors.
  • Have a working thermometer available to accurately read the temperature in your home.
  • Allow faucets to drip or trickle to avoid burst pipes.
  • Stay on top of emergency alerts from local authorities, including threats to the water or power supplies.

If you are evacuating

It may be safer to shelter in place, but sometimes it is not. If emergency personnel are telling residents in your area to evacuate or your home is not safe, make sure: 

  • Your vehicle is prepared for the journey. 
  • You have sufficient emergency equipment and supplies in your vehicle before you leave (see Prepare Your Car, above). 
  • You know exactly where to go and how to get there before you leave. 
  • You’ve told someone where you’re going, the route you plan to use to get there, and when you expect to arrive. 

The Red Cross has some additional safety recommendations to help you prepare for driving during a winter storm. We provide a link to Red Cross recommendations below.

What if I need to evacuate during or after a winter storm disaster?

Safety should be your primary concern if you are evacuating your home during or after a winter storm event. Please look at the safety tips we have covered in the section above. Some natural disasters appear quickly and with little time to prepare for evacuation. Winter storms are not quite so sudden, but it pays to prepare a checklist of things you’ll need to take with you if you must leave your home. Here are some of the things you should include in your list:

  • All family members currently at the home.
  • All pets and animals.
  • Emergency supply kit, including basic tools, flashlights, food, water, and blankets.
  • Directions to your destination.
  • Battery-powered radio.
  • Photos/video/inventory of possessions for insurance. You can also upload these to the cloud for safekeeping.
  • Contact information for your insurance company and copies of insurance policy documents.
  • Irreplaceable items and keepsakes, if possible.

What can I do to prepare for an insurance claim after a severe winter storm event?

Being prepared to submit an insurance claim following a severe winter storm event means making sure you have the right information on hand when needed and documenting the condition of your property and belongings before and after damage has occurred.

  • Have Insurance Documents Ready: Place your insurance company and agent information in a safe and accessible place, or take it with you if you leave your home. If possible, also take a copy of your current insurance policy. Having this information available will make it a lot easier to get the claim process going. 
  • Document Your Property and Belongings Before Damage Occurs: Create an inventory, or list, of the things you own. Include photos and videos of these belongings and the interior and exterior of your home, ideally before any damage has occurred. You can keep this documentation in the cloud, saved in Google Drive or iCloud, for example. You could also keep hard copy documentation in sealed bags or containers.
  • Document Your Damage and Losses After the Disaster: Take photos and videos of any and all damage that is a result of the winter storm event, if possible. Resist the urge to clean up right away. Wait until after you’ve had a chance to document the extent of the damage to your belongings and the interior and exterior of your home through photos, video, and written notes. This documentation is important evidence that you will ultimately give to your insurance company to show your losses. 

If your insurance claim is denied, you can request information about the denial from your insurance company by making and submitting this free and customizable Rocket Lawyer Request for Information About Insurance Denial document. Damage that isn’t covered by your insurance policy may ultimately be covered by FEMA once FEMA opens up the ability to file claims following the emergency. You might consider filing a FEMA claim if you qualify.

Be prepared, stay safe, and seek out advice when needed

We hope you have found this information helpful. Being prepared can help get us through even the most treacherous weather conditions, and may even save a life. You can find much of the information on winter storm preparedness we’ve provided here on the FEMA, CDC, and Red Cross websites.

If you have any legal questions, whether it’s about an insurance claim or a personal injury, we recommend that you contact a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney for fast and affordable advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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