Drifting snow, frozen pipes, and other winter hazards this weekend

February 15, 2015 by Mark H. Anbinder

It's cold. Very cold. Even the snowmen have had enough of this spate of winter weather. The snow has stopped, and the sun is shining, but the extreme cold and sharp winds are creating significant hazards that will last into Monday.

This afternoon's temperature is right around zero across the region, and that's without counting the wind chill, which is making it feel more like 20 to 25 below zero. The forecast for Sunday night has a low temperature as low as -16°F, with wind chills around -35.

In these conditions, exposed skin is susceptible to frostbite in as little as ten minutes. If you must go outside, cover as much exposed skin as possible, and shield yourself from wind as much as possible.

A water main break on South Hill this morning left a swath of Route 96B between Downtown Ithaca and Ithaca College closed to traffic for several hours, with vehicles being rerouted onto Hudson Street and Coddington Road to get around the area. The water main break has also created flooding on the south side of Downtown Ithaca, sent a river flowing down an already snowbound East Spencer Street, and left an icy mess on bridges and sidewalks around Prospect Street, Clinton Street, and South Cayuga Street. City officials say the break also flooded the basements of about twenty houses in the Prospect Street neighborhood, and Ithaca Fire Department crews assisted with pumping water out of flooded basements.

The water main break is an extreme example, but it reminds us that in extreme cold, pipes can freeze, and frozen pipes can burst. If your home has water pipes in unheated spaces, leaving a faucet dripping slowly can help. Collect the water in a large bowl, pitcher, or jug to water plants or for cooking, or for your home's emergency water supply, rather than waste it.

If your pipes freeze, never use a torch or other open flame to try to thaw them! Our friends at the Ithaca Fire Department say, "Homeowners who experience a frozen pipe can try to thaw the line safely by using a hair dryer. Thawing won't be fast, but it will be safe." They suggest setting the hair dryer on high heat and holding it a few inches away from the pipe. "Pipes conduct heat extremely well, so even if the freeze is behind a wall, you can usually thaw it out," says IFD public information officer Lt. Thomas T. Basher Jr. A space heater can also help warm the pipes or keep them from freezing.

Even without fresh snow, driving is tricky this afternoon because the high winds are blowing snow across roadways. This weekend's light and fluffy snow is especially susceptible to drifting. City, town, county, and state plows are out and clearing roads, but expect reduced visibility (including sudden whiteouts from gusts of wind across fields next to the road) and slippery conditions. It's so cold that typical rock salt doesn't melt ice, so that's no help.

While you're staying warm in the house might be a perfect opportunity to see how prepared you are for an extended storm that could leave your neighborhood without power.

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