Winter Storm, Severe Thunderstorm, Tornado, and Wind Hazard Overview

Winter Storms

A winter storm is a combination of heavy snow, blowing snow and/or dangerous wind chills. A winter storm is life-threatening.

Blizzards are dangerous winter storms that are a combination of blowing snow and wind resulting in very low visibilities. While heavy snowfalls and severe cold often accompany blizzards, they are not required. Sometimes strong winds pick up snow that has already fallen, creating a ground blizzard.

An ice storm is a storm which results in the accumulation of at least .25” of ice on exposed surfaces. They create hazardous driving and walking conditions. Tree branches and powerlines can easily snap under the weight of the ice.

Lake effect storms are not low pressure system storms. As a cold, dry air mass moves over the Great Lakes regions, the air picks up lots of moisture from the Great Lakes. This air, now full of water, dumps the water as snow in areas generally to the south and east of the lakes.

Learn more at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Winter Storms Advice

If the weather outside is frightful, make sure you’re prepared to safely brave snow, ice, and other winter weather hazards.

Here are some tips to help you stay safe:

Winter Storm Watch is an alert to the possibility of a blizzard or snow, freezing rain, or sleet that could be heavy.  It’s issued 12 to 48 hours before a winter storm. 

When a Winter Storm Warning is issued, heavy snow, freezing rain or sleet is expected soon or may be occurring already.  These warnings usually come out 12 to 24 hours before the storm. 

Sign up for your community’s warning system.  The Emergency Alert System and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio also provide emergency alerts.

Stock up before the storm.  You may not have to deal with crowds at the grocery store when a storm warning is issued if you already have a supply of water and food that doesn’t need to be cooked if you lose power.  Make sure you also have flashlights and extra batteries.  Only use generators outside, more than 20 feet away from your home’s doors and windows.

Limit your time outside.  Stay off the roads if possible.  Keep your car’s gas tank full and keep an emergency kit that includes a blanket in your car.  If you need to go out, wear layers of warm clothing.


Storm Shelters: A New Edition of ICC 500

February 2024

The International Code Council (ICC) has released a new edition of the ICC 500 standard, Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters, in November of 2023. The free text version of this updated standard is available here.

The ICC 500-2023 is a consensus-based standard that sets forth the latest requirements for the design and construction of storm shelters. Storm shelters are critical for life-safety protection against tornadoes and hurricanes, especially whenever evacuation is not possible for hurricanes and short notice is the norm for tornadoes. The updated standards reflect the latest advancements and research, ensuring that storm shelter occupants will be safe even in extreme winds up to 250 mph for tornado shelters.

Two federal agencies, FEMA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), played pivotal roles in this update process. NIST’s Dr. Marc Levitan served as the Chair for the entire standard, FEMA’s Dr. Pataya Scott served as the Chair of the Structural Chapter, and FEMA contractor Glenn Overcash was the Chair of the Appendix which covers storm shelter preparedness and emergency operations plans. The two agencies worked together throughout the process to ensure there were no competing federal proposals on changes to the standard.

This update to ICC 500 happened faster than the typical wait between editions, following the last update released in December of 2020, as the committee was interested in ensuring the standard aligned with the new tornado loads chapter in ASCE 7-22, Minimum Design Loads and Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structuresand publishing in time so that the ICC 500-2023 will also be referenced in the 2024 International Codes. Both goals were achieved by the committee under the leadership of Dr. Levitan.

We strongly encourage all stakeholders in the building and construction industry, as well as local building officials and emergency management professionals, to become familiar with the ICC 500-2023. It’s not just about compliance; it’s about safeguarding communities and saving lives.

FEMA’s Earthquake and Wind Programs Branch and Building Science Branches are actively working on updating FEMA P-361, Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms, and FEMA P-320, Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building or Installing a Safe Room for Your Home, to reference ICC 500-2023 and will be available later this year.

Stay informed and stay safe – your proactive steps today can make a world of difference tomorrow.



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