Types of Disasters and Their Consequences

American Public Health Association 

In This Article

Blizzard/Coldwave/Heavy Snowfall

A major winter storm can be lethal. Winter storms bring ice, snow, cold temperatures, and often dangerous driving conditions in the northern parts of the United States. Even small amounts of snow and ice can cause severe problems for southern states where storms are infrequent.

Familiarity with winter storm warning messages, such as wind chill, winter storm watch, winter storm warning, and blizzard warning can facilitate quick action by public health. "Wind chill" is a calculation of how cold it feels outside when the effects of temperature and wind speed are combined. On November 1, 2001, the National Weather Service (NWS) implemented a replacement Wind Chill Temperature (WCT) index for the 2001/2002 winter season. The reason for the change was to improve upon the current WCT Index which was based on the 1945 Siple and Passel Index. A winter storm watch indicates that severe winter weather may affect your area. A winter storm warning indicates that severe winter weather conditions are definitely on the way and emergency preparedness plans should be activated. A blizzard warning means that large amounts of falling or blowing snow and sustained winds of at least 35 miles per hour are expected for several hours.

Risk of Morbidity and Mortality

Transportation accidents are the leading cause of death during winter storms. Preparing vehicles for the winter season and knowing how to react if stranded or lost on the road are the keys to safe winter driving. Morbidity and mortality associated with winter storms include frostbite and hypothermia, carbon dioxide (CO) poisoning, blunt trauma from falling objects, penetrating trauma from the use of mechanical snow blowers, and cardiovascular events usually associated with snow removal. Frostbite is a severe reaction to cold exposure that can permanently damage its victims. A loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in fingers, toes, or nose and ear lobes are symptoms of frostbite. Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent stumbling, drowsiness, and exhaustion.

Water has a unique property in that it expands as it freezes. This expansion puts tremendous pressure on whatever is containing it, including metal or plastic pipes. No matter the "strength" of a container, expanding water can cause pipes to break causing flooding. Flooding creates a risk for drowning and electrocution. Pipes that freeze most frequently are those that are exposed to severe cold, like outdoor hose bibs, swimming pool supply lines, water sprinkler lines, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, garages, or kitchen cabinets. Also, pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. Pipe freezing is a particular problem in warmer climates where pipes often run through uninsulated or underinsulated attics or crawl spaces. A secondary risk is the loss of heat due to freezing pipes.

1 Sections on Blizzards and Heatwaves reprinted with permission from Landesman LY and Veenema TG. Natural Disasters. In Veenema TG(ed), Disaster Nursing and Emergency Preparedness for Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Terrorism and Other Hazards. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2003: 270-274.


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