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On January 4th, one of the worst storms in recent history hit the Sierra Nevadas, knocking out power, causing flooding and forcing people to evacuate their homes. The storm initially dropped roughly six to ten inches of rain, which turned to snow later on that evening. After 44 inches of snow followed the rain, the levees in Fernley, Nevada were stressed to their breaking point, causing them to overflow and break. About three feet of water from the levee was released and flowed through their streets, leaving some 3,500 people stranded. Rescuers were using school buses, boats and helicopters, although no injuries were reported.

“It was a mess up there last night,” said Chuck Allen of the Nevada Department of Public Safety. “It’s so cold here. The snow is about 2 inches in depth and the temperatures are right near the frigid mark both for the rescuers and rescuees.”

In addition, there was an evacuation order given for four valleys near Orange County in Southern California for about 3,000 residents. The possibility of a flash flood was high, though it is unclear as to how many obeyed the order. Homeowners in Southern California stacked sandbags around their homes in preparation for the water. A voluntary evacuation was in effect at an apartment complex northwest of downtown Los Angeles because of flooding and a small mudslide.

According to the California Department of Transportation Interstate 80, the main east-west link between Northern California and Nevada, was reopened Saturday, but tire chains were mandatory on a 60-mile stretch. While the highway was shut down during the night, the Red Cross set up a 200-bed shelter in Truckee for stranded motorists.

In case of heavy snow and possible dangerous driving conditions there are several precautions you can take:

1) Equip your vehicle with chains or snow tires. Both allow your tires to get a better grip on the road and prevent the “smooth on smooth” driving of snow-filled grooves in regular tires that occurs when they are filled with snow while driving on a heavy snow-laden road.

2) Listen to the emergency radio station that has the local weather forecasts and conditions as well as driving advice for traveling motorists. The National Weather Service (NWS) broadcasts warnings, watches, forecasts and other non-weather related hazards information 24 hours a day. During an emergency, NWS forecasters interrupt routine broadcasts and send a special tone activating local weather radios. Weather radios equipped with a special alarm tone feature sound an alert to give you immediate information about a life-threatening situation.

3) If you find yourself starting to spin while driving on a snowy or icy road, be sure to turn your wheels away from the direction that you are spinning. If for example you are spinning to the left you will want to turn your wheels to the right. This will keep your wheels parallel to the road and in the direction that you want to be going. If you turn your wheels in the wrong direction it is entirely possible to begin spinning in circles depending upon your speed.

4) It is useful to have a flashlight and fresh batteries in your car. If you do have to leave your vehicle to put chains on your tires in the dark or flag down a tow truck it will be much easier for you to see what you are doing or for them to see you at the same time.

5) You will want to keep your gas tank full or close to it. In the winter, if you do get stuck or stranded, the engine will be your only source of heat aside from your clothes. You can run the engine indefinitely at idle to stay warm for as long as you have gas. No harm will be done to the engine.

6) Make sure your batteries are properly charged and ready to go. A short in the electrical system in your car while traveling between two states 50-100 miles from help is nothing less than disastrous.

7) Bring a cell-phone with you. While driving it is hazardous to use your phone to make calls, but if for some reason you become stranded communication will be your key to getting help, being located and getting out of your situation. At the very least it could save you from having to walk to the next town in the snow or waiting overnight in your car for the sun to rise.

8) Make sure your windshield wipers are in good condition. If they are unable to clear away snow or rain your visibility will be hampered while you are driving, potentially leading to accidents.

9) Make sure that you have proper engine coolant in the proper amounts. Although it is cold outside it is still possible for your car to overheat. You will also want to make sure you have sufficient windshield wiper fluid as you can go through quite a bit of it in an average drive, interstate drives not withstanding.

10) You will need to make sure that your car is tuned and has been seen by a mechanic. Any problems that occur in the summer are only multiplied during the winter when the temperatures drop. If your car has difficulties starting in the summer those difficulties may be overwhelming in the snow and cold.

11) And finally, in the snow and ice drive slowly. The postulate that “whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion” is especially true on snowy and icy roads. If you hit the brakes eventually you will be able to stop, but the question is always about timing and place. During summer months it is advisable to give at least 3 car lengths to the person in front of you for safe driving. During heavy snow you may wish to give up to five or 10. It’s better to be able to stop before you hit the car in front of you than be stopped by the rear of that car.

Good luck and safe travels!

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