Take precautions with winter weather

Weather forecasters predicted a blast of nasty winter weather for most of Virginia, starting Wednesday and continuing through this morning.

Southwest Virginia had snow by Wednesday afternoon and the winter weather was expected to sweep across much of the state by evening. Sleet and freezing rain were forecast to follow.

The National Weather Service said counties along the Virginia-West Virginia line could see up to 10 inches of snow, with 3 to 8 inches likely over most of the rest of the state.

No matter how much snow and ice the area receives, some precautions should be taken to keep residents safe and warm. Below is a guide to surviving winter storms to help get you through.


During weather emergencies, parents are asked not to call the school, the transportation department or central office, but to use the school closing telephone line or Web site for information.

As soon as a decision is made by Prince William County Public Schools about closings, delays or early dismissals, it is posted on the division’s Web site at http://www.pwcs.edu. The information is also available on the school closing telephone line at (703) 791-2776 (select 3).

Local radio and television stations also make announcements. Information for Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park schools is given to these stations by 6 a.m. Color codes mentioned are for school employees only.

In Manassas schools, closing or delay information is posted on the school division’s Web site at http://www.manassas.k12.va. by 6:30 a.m.

Manassas Park schools will have information available by calling the division’s weather report line at (703) 335-8857.

When school is dismissed early, all after-school activities and athletic events are canceled.

When schools close early, some parents and child care providers may not be aware of the change. Parents of kindergarten and elementary school students should provide the school with the name and telephone number of someone designated as a contact person should a parent or guardian be unavailable.

Parents of middle and high school students should also have a procedure in place to ensure the safety of their children.

If parents feel roads and sidewalks in their area are unsafe for travel, parents have the option of not sending their child to school. The student will be expected to make up all assignments but will not be penalized academically and will be given an excused absence.


The Virginia Department of Transportation is in full swing to keep roads safe and clear during a snow event, officials said.

“We’re going to be fully mobile. We are going to bring in all of our VDOT crews as well as hired contractors,” said Joan Morris, spokesperson for VDOT.

“We’ve been getting ready since last summer,” Morris said. “Even though this is a little earlier than usual, we are just as ready as if it was January or February.”

“We are fully loaded right now. We have 85,000 tons of salt and sand stockpiled in about 18 different maintenance areas in Northern Virginia,” Morris said. “We just built a new storage dome in Gainesville by [Interstate] 66.”

“We are responsible for 15,000 lane miles of roads in Northern Virginia,” she said. VDOT measures roads in lane miles which means that a 1-mile stretch of road that has four lanes is actually four lane miles.

VDOT planned to bring in snow removal crews starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday and will have more than 1,000 trucks on the road, Morris said.

“Just as soon as we have a dusting on the roadway they will begin salting the roads,” Morris said. “At about two inches, they plow.”

Before getting on the roads, check VDOT’s traffic cameras online at http://www.trafficland.com for a current look at conditions at key spots in the area.

Information is also available at http://VirginiaDOT.org or by calling the highway help line at 1-800-367-ROAD.


“The first rule of thumb during severe winter weather is if you don’t have to drive, don’t,” said Lon Anderson, director of Public and Government Relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Motorists should remember that cars and snow don’t mix and driving a car on an icy surface is an extremely dangerous activity.”

If you must drive, AAA Mid-Atlantic suggests you follow these winter driving tips:

Reduce your speed and take your time. Increase your following distance from 2 to 3 seconds to 8 to 10 seconds so there’s more time and distance to react to road conditions.

Avoid abrupt motions. Anticipate when you might need to change lanes, make a turn, or react to the action of another driver.

If you do skid on a slick surface:

Don’t panic — you must remain calm to regain control of your vehicle; Take your foot off the brake or smoothly take your foot off the accelerator; Steer into the direction you were traveling to regain traction; Then, begin to accelerate slowly.

When braking on ice and snow, drivers need to know the kind of braking system they have.

If you have anti-lock brakes, keep the pedal depressed and do not pump the brakes — the braking system will do that for you.

If you do not have anti-lock brakes, then the correct procedure is to apply the brakes firmly. If the brakes “lock-up,” slowly release the brake pedal until the tires are no longer skidding and you can feel them braking properly again.

Guard against sport utility vehicle overconfidence. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are great for initial traction and avoiding getting stuck, but once they are moving, they have the same difficulty keeping control and stopping as other vehicles.

“It is easy to succumb to a ‘road warrior’ mentality, in which a four-wheel drive vehicle is viewed as excusing the driver from the cautions other drivers must abide by,” Anderson said. “All-wheel-drive vehicles offer enhanced winter-weather mobility, but driving an SUV requires sticking to the same common-sense safety rules as driving a car.”

“Worse, because these vehicles have a higher center of gravity, they turn over more easily than other vehicles, especially when turning sharply or skidding,” Anderson said.

Slippery when wet: Just a thin layer of ice or snow can greatly reduce traction. Normal following distances of 2 to 3 seconds should be increased to 8 to 10 seconds in slippery conditions. Follow the path that will give you the most traction. Watch cars in front of you and avoid areas where they slide. If you start to skid, shift the car into neutral (automatic transmission) or declutch the car (manual), look and steer in the direction you want to go. Avoid panic braking or hard acceleration in a skid.


Virginia Railway Express officials said they do not expect winter storms to affect their service, but the snow may leave the walkways, roads and parking lots slippery.

VRE also offers the following suggestions for commuting during winter storms:

Leave yourself plenty of time to make your train, running in wintry weather is a sure recipe for an accident.

Use the handrails when entering or exiting a train.

Use extra caution and the handrail on bi-level stairs.

Drive carefully and slowly in the parking lots

Be sure to wear appropriate clothing and shoes.

The latest VRE information will be posted on the VRE Web site at http://www.vre.org/service/snow.htm.

Prepare your automobile

One of the best ways to prevent problems during a winter storm is to prepare before one occurs. AAA Mid-Atlantic recommends the following preparations:

Charge it: Cold weather is tough on batteries. At zero degrees, a car’s battery loses about 60 percent of its strength, yet the engine needs about 2 times more power to start. Even at a comparatively mild 32 degrees, a battery is 35 percent weaker. Make sure the battery terminals and cables are securely attached and free of corrosion. The battery can be cleaned with a solution of baking soda and water.

Get a Grip: Tires that are improperly inflated will have less traction on slippery roads. Make sure your tires and your spare have the pressure (PSI) recommended in your owner’s manual. Look for tire damage and excessive or uneven tread wear.

See and be seen: Danger must be seen to be avoided. Driving with a snow-covered windshield, windows, side-view mirrors or lights invites a crash. Even dirty headlights can reduce visibility by as much as 90 percent. Clear windows, mirrors and lights with an ice scraper, brush or spray deicer and regularly clean lights of dirt and sludge. Make certain windshield wipers and defrosters are in good working order and that washer reservoirs are filled with no-freeze windshield washer fluid.

Cool it: Make certain cooling system antifreeze is mixed with an equal portion of water for maximum protection. Flush out your radiator and refill with a 50/50 mix at least once every three years.

Air It Out: Don’t let frigid temperatures tempt you into starting your car in a closed garage or idling your engine for long periods with the windows closed. Carbon monoxide, present in exhaust fumes, is almost impossible to detect and can be fatal when breathed in a confined area.

Key Solution: Frozen door locks can be overcome by carefully heating the end of a key with a match or lighter. Other methods include: dipping the tip of the key in rubbing alcohol, using a can of deicer spray, or heating the lock with a hair dryer. Never pour hot water on a lock or windshield because this could worsen the problem or cause the windshield to shatter.

An Ounce of Prevention: Prepare for emergencies and carry the following items in your trunk: flashlight with extra batteries; flares or reflective triangles; fire extinguisher; jumper cables; first aid kit; jack and spare tire; blanket or extra clothing; pocket knife; extra motor oil and windshield wiper fluid; kitty litter or sand; small snow shovel; cellular phone; and a copy of your motor club membership card and emergency numbers.

Prepare Your Home

About 20 percent of cold related deaths occur in the home, according to the National Weather Service. Young children under the age of two and the elderly, those more than 60 years of age, are most susceptible to hypothermia. Hypothermia can set in over a period of time. Keep the thermostat above 69 degrees Fahrenheit, wear warm clothing, eat food for warmth, and drink plenty of water (or fluids other than alcohol, which will lower your body temperature).

Prince William County Government and the National Weather Service offer the following tips to help prepare your home safely for winter weather:

Winterize your home.

Have safe emergency heating equipment available. Make sure you know how to uses the heating sources to prevent a fire and make sure you have proper ventilation.

Install and check smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

Keep pipes from freezing.

Have extra blankets on hand.

Have disaster supplies on hand in case the power goes out.

Develop an emergency communication plan with your family and make sure all family members know how to respond after a severe winter storm.

Have flashlight and extra batteries.

Have a battery-powered weather radio and portable radio to receive emergency information.

Keep extra food and water. High energy food, such as dried fruit or candy and food requiring no cooking or refrigeration is best.

Keep extra medicine and baby items on hand.

Have first-aid supplies.


Health care providers advise residents that if they don’t have to go outside in snowy cold weather don’t do so. However, if they must, certain precautions should be taken.

Children — lured by visions of snowmen, snowball fights and a need to sled — should be dressed appropriately.

“It’s really important that you dress them in layers of loose-fitting clothing,” said Sherry Dunphy, director of community education/health promotion for Potomac Hospital.

A hat; mittens, which are warmer than gloves; boots and a scarf over their mouths to protect their lungs also should be worn.

Dunphy said given that children will be playing in snow, it’s probable they will get wet. Parents need to change their children out of wet clothing.

“Parents need to pay attention to how long their children are outside,” Dunphy said. “Every so often they should take a break, come inside and maybe have some hot chocolate.”

Parents should watch for signs of frostbite in their children’s toes and fingers. Signs include loss of feeling and skin that has turned white or pale. Get medical attention immediately for frostbite. The area should be slowly rewarmed.

Adults also should take the same precautions if they are outside. The elderly should remain indoors if possible.

Additionally, adults should not be too zealous when shoveling.

“People don’t realize how much exertion they use when shoveling and how strenuous it is,” Dunphy said. The hospital emergency room sees many patients following a snow storm who have overexerted themselves or hurt a limb or their back by shoveling, Dunphy said.

Hypothermia occurs when body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service. Determine this by taking your temperature. Warning signs include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and exhaustion. Get medical attention immediately.

If you can’t get help quickly, begin warming the body slowly. Warm the body core first, not the extremities. Get the person into dry clothing and wrap in a warm blanket covering the head and neck. Do not give the person alcohol, drugs, coffee or any hot beverage or food. Warm broth and food is better.


Based on meteorologist reports for Northern Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power is not expecting problems in the area.

“They don’t expect us to have the icing conditions here that they do [expect] in the Richmond area,” said Jeanne Underwood of Dominion. “Traditionally, our biggest problems exist when the ice weights the trees and the limbs hit lines.”

If weather conditions worsen, Dominion will take more steps to keeps lines operational.

If residents do experience power outages, call the automated service line at 1-888-667-3000.

Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative employees said they’re ready for anything. All of the contractors are on call and prepared to jump in and get things back on line should power to NOVEC customers be interrupted.

NOVEC customers should call (703) 335-0500 or 1-888-335-0500 if their power goes out.

Steve Gordon of the Prince William Service Authority said the number to call in case the water goes out during a storm is (703) 335-7990.

Gordon said service authority customers can talk to a person at that number and can expect someone to help them in case of a water outage.

Winter Fun

Prince William County parks offer many activities for those cold winter days. While the Park Authority does not have any facilities specifically geared to winter sports, there are some nice hiking trails at Locust Shade and Helwig parks, said spokesperson Beth Robertson.

“If you really like to brave the outdoor elements like I do, it’s a great place to come play,” Robertson said.

If you prefer to stay warm while playing, the recreation centers may be the place for you. While some outdoor facilities may close due to the weather, the indoor centers “very rarely” close, Robertson said. Any closures of cancellations will be added to the information line by 4:40 a.m. Call (703) 792-7060.

Dale City Recreation Center offers a nice bank of windows beside the indoor pool, Robertson aid.

“You can watch it snow while you’re totally warm inside,” she said.

Weather Terms

The following are terms and warnings used by the National Weather Service in winter:

Winter Storm Watch: Severe winter weather conditions may affect your area. (Freezing rain, sleet, and heavy snow may occur separately or in combination).

Winter Storm Warning: Severe winter weather conditions are imminent or occurring.

Heavy Snow Warning: A snowfall of at least 6 inches in 12 hours, or 8 inches in 24 hours is expected.

Blizzard Warning: Considerable falling and/or blowing snow and winds of at least 35 miles per hour are expected for several hours.

High Wind Warning: Sustained winds of at least 40 miles per hour or gusts of at least 58 miles per hour or greater are expected to last for at least 1 hour.

Wind Chill Warning: Used with wind chills of 35 degrees below zero or colder on the High Plains.

Wind Chill Advisory: Used when wind and temperature combine to produce wind chill values of 20 degrees below zero to 35 degrees below zero.

Snow Advisory: Snow accumulations are expected to range between 3 and 6 inches in a 12 hour period.

Snow and Blowing Snow Advisory: When falling snow is accompanied by blowing snow to cause travel problems due to low visibilities and drifting snow.

Blowing Snow Advisory: When wind blown snow will intermittently reduce visibilities and create a hazard for travelers.

Ice Storm Warning: Issued when damaging ice accumulations are expected during freezing rain situations; walking and driving becomes extremely dangerous. Ice accumulations are usually 1/4 inch or greater.

Sleet Warning: Issued when accumulations of sleet covering the ground to a depth of 1/2 inch or more are expected. This is a relatively rare event.

Flurries: Light snow falling for short durations. No accumulation or light dusting is all that is expected.

Showers: Snow falling at varying intensities for brief periods of time. Some accumulation is possible.

Squalls: Brief, intense show showers accompanied by strong, gusty winds. Accumulation may be significant.

Blowing Snow: Wind-driven snow that reduces visibility and causes significant drifting. Blowing snow may be snow that is falling and/or loose snow on the ground picked up by the wind.

Blizzard: Winds over 35 miles per hour with snow and blowing snow reducing visibilities to near zero.

Sleet: Is rain drops that freeze into ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet usually bounces when hitting a surface and doesn’t stick to objects. However, it can accumulate like snow and cause a hazard to motorists.

Freezing Rain: Is rain that falls onto a surface with a temperature below freezing. This causes it to freeze to surfaces, such as trees, cars, and roads, forming a coating or glaze of ice. Even small accumulations of ice can cause a significant hazard.

Wind Chill: The wind chill is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by combined effects of wind and cold. As the wind increases, heat is carried away from the body at an accelerated rate, driving down the body temperature. Animals are also affected by wind chill.

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