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Christine Whelan Headshot

Urgent Weather Alert: Advice from a Cityslicker After Her First Iowa Winter

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Weather is serious business in the Midwest. Talking about below-zero temperatures, flooding, tornados or the upcoming blizzard isn't empty small-talk: It's a life-or-death struggle against the elements out here--or at least the last four months of dire "urgent alerts" from the National Weather Service has me convinced that's true.

My husband and I recently moved from temperate New York City to Iowa City, a college town in eastern Iowa. Weather buff that I am, I installed the AccuWeather Forecastfox widget on my web browser, so I could see current weather at a glance. A red exclamation point sign pops up in browser's toolbar when the National Weather Service issues an urgent weather message, warning or watch.

That red exclamation point has been on my web browser nearly every day for four months.

Last month I received the warning that I wasn't to set foot out of the house at all because "bitterly cold air and strong winds" were creating "dangerously low wind chill values" which would "result in frost bite, hypothermia or even death" within 30 minutes.

That same week I'd been warned that the snow and the wind could create "a life-threatening situation where stranded persons may freeze to death while visibilities remain very poor in blowing snow."

It's March now. The spring is a mere 10 days away. I've survived my first Iowa winter, and I've got some tales to tell (provided I can overcome my concern about the urgent "ice jam" warning that's been on my web browser all week.)

It all began in late November, when Iowa got hit with an ice storm. It was beautiful: Ice coated all the trees, everything glistened. Of course, the power went out and the four inches of ice remained on our driveway for five weeks, but I was in good spirits. This was a winter adventure.

All through December, the snow kept falling and the warnings got more dire: Travel is dangerous, roads are slippery so stay home (presumably until spring), the weather folks advised. If you must travel, the alerts told me each day, carry a "winter storm survival kit" in your car.

My winter storm survival kit? Seriously? I'm from New York where your winter storm survival kit is $20 for a taxi, your two-inch wedges instead of your three-inch stilettos and a fashionable, but not-very-warm, belted trench.

"Another winter storm is taking aim on the area," read the warning when I clicked on the red exclamation point on Feb. 24. A "potent storm system" was on its way. A few days earlier, the concern was arctic winds bringing dangerously cold wind chill reading of 20 to 30 below zero. "For those who must travel and venture outdoors, be prepared," the National Weather Service warned.

Prepared with what? Your winter storm survival kit, of course.

I love weather emergencies. Growing up, my mother had the weather channel on constantly, and got really excited when a storm was coming our way. My father called her "the disaster channel" since she'd gleefully report that a major thunderstorm or snowstorm was on its way.

Indeed, over the summer, there were a few tornado scares that sent me to the basement, and I'd call my mother to share every detail of the excitement: sirens blaring, power flickering, clutching the cat as I dramatically huddled for safety. (My husband, an Iowa native, usually sat on the couch reading, unconcerned, marveling at his drama-queen wife.)

This winter, however, has been a challenge. More than 63 inches of snow has fallen in Iowa City this winter. (That's just shy of the average height of an American woman, to put it into perspective.) We've dumped 400 pounds of salt on our driveway in an attempt to stave off the ice (it hasn't worked).

We had a few all-out blizzards, where lightening cracked as the snow piled up. We even had a thundersnow event. (What's that, you ask? It's very rare. Look it up.) In these dramatic weather events, it's important to be prepared withŠ your winter storm survival kit.

According to a list supplied by the University of Illinois, a winter storm survival kit consists of blankets, high-calorie, non-perishable food, flashlight and extra batteries, first aid kit, knife, extra clothing, "a large empty can and plastic cover with tissues and paper towels for sanitary purposes, and a smaller can and water-proof matches to melt snow for drinking water," shovel, windshield scraper and brush, tool kit, tow rope, booster cables, last will in testament, water container, compass and road maps.

OK, you can leave your will at home, but the rest of it is for real. Most folks I know here in Iowa have at least the basics on that list in their trunks at all times. For truth.

Now that I'm an old hat at these harsh winters, I have a few tips for other city-slickers attempting this transition:

1) Go to the AccuWeather site and download online weather gizmos to keep you in the know when storms approach. Let the thrills of weather-related terror begin.

2) If the weathermen predict a high of 25 degrees, the day can start out at 7 below zero. A skirt is not the correct fashion choice at that temperature.

3) Stiletto heels are terrific on icy sidewalks. Walk heel first and you'll get much more traction than in flats.

4) The cold, dry weather is terrible for your skin. My doctor recommended spreading Crisco all over my body to heal the itchy, cracked skin. (Honestly, that's what he said.)

5) Invest in a furry hat that clasps under your chin. You'll look absurd, but you'll stay warm. Bonus: Lodge your cell phone inside the hat, next to your ear, for hands-free chatting.

6) With thermal underwear, the fuzzy hat and appropriate down-filled coat, one can comfortably walk up to 3 miles in 2-degree weather. If it's windy, large sunglasses are a nice way to keep the chill off your eyes and cheeks, while remaining incognito (you'll look really silly all bundled up like that)

The red exclamation point is still on my web browser, alerting me to the threat of severe flooding as winter thaws to spring. Maybe the nice folks at AccuWeather could post an encouraging symbol as it gets warmer, like a flower.

In the meantime, I'm heading for high, dry land as the next weather disaster strikes.

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