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Friday, March 25, 2016

The Perils of a Blizzard...The Joy of Preparedness

By Dana Goldsmith | Prepare Colorado Program Development Specialist
American Red Cross


For Winter Safety Awareness week, we thought this would be a good reminder ...

 I left my house at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, March 23rd with a list of errands to run. I had intended to be home by noon, hearing that a sizeable storm was headed our way and driving would become difficult after 10 a.m. I traveled down to the south end of Colorado Springs to pick up a friend's daughter, who was coming over to play that day. Moments after I passed Marksheffel Road heading east on Woodman, I got the notification that Woodman was shut down. It was closed for good reason: the traffic was barely crawling above 2 mph and I couldn’t see the taillights of the car in front of me, which was only 2 ft ahead of my front bumper.

I decided to pull out my GPS to get an idea of how close were to the nearest gas station, or grocery store so we could pull in. Turns out we were right in the middle. Gas station was 1 mile behind us, Grocery store, 1 mile ahead. With no good answers, I  decided to follow the car in front of us and hope we could crawl home.

Eventually, traffic stopped completely. The cars around me had turned off their engines after 45 minutes of no movement, and I decided to do the same. I called my husband to tell him we were stuck. He asked my whereabouts and I told him what I knew from GPS, but I had no way of visually telling how far, or close we were to anything. I drove this stretch of road hundreds, if not thousands of times, and I had no idea where I was. It was unnerving.

Looking out the car window.
Photo by Dana Goldsmith
I work for the American Red Cross, as the Preparedness Lead for my chapter. I wanted to practice what I preached, so I had loaded my car up with supplies. Most of it was my winter hiking gear, which never left my car because I never knew when I might want to take off and go snowshoeing! The 11 year old girl I was with was very underprepared. She was wearing flat tennis shoes, leggings and a long sleeve shirt under a very thin vest. Looked adorable, but not exactly blizzard appropriate!

Some of the gear that came in most useful:
Gloves- thick, winter gloves that were heavier than the “Driving gloves” I was wearing.
Base Layers-in hiking terms, these are thinner, water wicking zip up jackets that fit nicely under heavier winter coats.
Beanies- I had 2 in the car, which was a lucky draw. One for her, one for me!
Extra jackets my kids happened to leave in the car- which fit the 11 year old quite well and gave her some warmth
My neck gaiter- this is a wide, stretchy cloth that you can use to cover your mouth/nose, all the way down your neck.
A bandana- this works in place of a neck gaiter to cover your exposed skin, and fit nicely for the 11 year old
Goggles- the wind was blowing SO hard. I couldn’t even look at my tailpipe without getting ice in my eyes. These were essential
Hand warmers and a space blanket- I always keep these in my hiking pack “just in case” and didn’t need them this day, but if we had been stuck overnight, this would have been life-saving.
First Aid Kit- also didn’t need this, but I was comforted in having it.
Water- my camel back is always full- 2L of water for those spontaneous hiking trips. It was enough water for the both of us, though if we had to stay overnight I’m not sure we would have had enough. More water is a good idea!
Bright colored, reflective and attention-grabbed gear- this helped me flag down the Search and Rescue vehicles that eventually came to get us
Car Charger, travel charger and a full battery on my phone- this helped me keep up with weather updates, tell my family I was okay, and battle the boredom that sets in when you are stuck in traffic for hours at a time!
Snacks- we had mixed nuts, granola bars, dried blueberries and a peanut butter “waffle” that is more like a cookie. I also learned that anything held together with honey or chocolate is not a good idea- it froze solid and those items were inedible!

One thing we didn't have was a place to use the restroom. The little girl in the back couldn’t hold it any longer, and getting out of the car to go to the bathroom wasn’t an option. It was far too dangerous to exposed skin or risk the wind/snow. We found an empty Gatorade bottle in my trash bag in the car, and she used that.

I went over a mental list of steps. My Red Cross Emergency app was REALLY helpful. It told me a series of things to do when trapped in your car, like run the engine to warm up every hour, for 10 minutes. But before doing that, check your tailpipe to be sure there is no blockage, and also crack a window to encourage good ventilation while the car is running. I was glad to have some steps to take, and the demonstration of knowing what to do seemed to be calming for the little girl in the back seat who was unsure and scared.

I also didn’t have much to DO. I downloaded some games on my phone and we took turns playing them, but a deck of cards would have been great. It’s calming to be distracted by these kinds of things instead of anxious about rescue, weather, conditions and other stress factors.

"That's my Car!" Photo by
Dana Goldsmith
At one point, something large slammed into my car. I’m not sure what it was. It was good I had my windows rolled up at that time, and that I had used my emergency break. Be aware that things may be blowing around in windy conditions like that, and you won’t see them because of the blowing snow.

The small car in front of me was really struggling. The wind was blowing so hard he was being carried. Even my Hummer was rocking and shaking with the high winds.

The kindness of strangers was something that I saw coming from all angles. On Facebook, strangers were offering their homes to stranded passengers, and people with 4X4 vehicles, towing capabilities and etc were offering to drive to get people out. It was tempting to ask for help, but somewhat dangerous. It was such a bad idea to get out of the car. Even going to my tailpipe to clear it of snow, I was pushed around by the wind and turned around, and could not see my bright orange car! It was so easy to get disoriented and confused about where I was. I couldn’t tell if I was on the road, on the shoulder, in a ditch, facing west or east… it was amazing how hard it was to figure out! And of course, with no visibility, it was scary to think that a semi, or sliding vehicle could come out of the white-out and hit me with no warning or ability to move.
"Scared but safe because we were
 prepared!" Photo by
Dana Goldsmith

I count my blessings. My friends daughter was safe and warm, we were inconvenienced and battling boredom, but not hurt or lost. We were warm, safe and protected by a good vehicle that could withstand the weather. But not all are so lucky.

In the end, we spent 7 hours in our vehicle, on the side of the road, and somehow wound up on Woodman facing WEST. We saw emergency lights across the road, and I snapped a photo when the wind cleared a bit to see.

I had to stand out of my sunroof and wave a bright orange Bronco Beanie to get their attention. As It turns out, my car was much more covered than I realized, and I was grateful I had opened and closed my sunroof, to unfreeze it, so we could eventually evacuate.

The fire truck got stuck and we were transferred to a snowcat, which put us in a wildland fire brush rig, before we were taken out of the dangerous area to a shelter, where we could arrange a ride. All in all, we made out fairly well, and I’m happy to say that both Hailey and I have recovered and are ready to face the next adventure!


To learn more about the Red Cross Emergency! app or about how to pack an emergency kit for your car go to our website,redcross.org/prepare


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