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January 14, 2014

Snow shoveling blamed for five Oakland County deaths

Officials offer tips on how to stay safe during extreme winter weather

By Mary Beth Almond
C & G Staff Writer

OAKLAND COUNTY — Following a nasty storm that dumped more than a foot of snow in some places across southeast Michigan, statewide temperatures hovered around 0 degrees early last week with wind chills at 25 below or colder.

“(The) storm has severely impacted our communities,” said Capt. Chris A. Kelenske — deputy state director of emergency management and Homeland Security, and commander of the Michigan State Police, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division — in a statement. “We are closely monitoring the situation to ensure the public health and safety of Michigan citizens.”

In Oakland County, the heavy snow, record-shattering low temperatures and dangerous wind chills contributed to at least five deaths from those who braved the elements to shovel snow.

According to Robert Gerds, administrator for the Oakland County Medical Examiner’s Office, a 36-year-old Detroit man, a 57-year-old Milford man, a 56-year-old Pontiac woman, a 67-year-old Lake Orion man and a 72-year-old White Lake Township man all collapsed and died while shoveling snow.

Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik said the fire station was staffed throughout the storm to provide hazardous weather-related assistance to Rochester residents. At press time, firefighters and Emergency Medical Service personnel had responded to one injury — neck and back pain after a weather-related car accident, three slip-and-fall medical emergencies caused by driveway and sidewalk ice covered by drifting snow, and a broken fire protection sprinkler line that did extensive damage in a commercial building. He said Fire Department personnel also helped four senior citizens with sidewalk and driveway clearing, and picked up and delivered a prescription medicine to one senior citizen.

In an effort to keep citizens safe throughout the rest of the winter, state, county and city officials shared a few cold-weather tips.

While anyone can be affected by extreme cold, Kathy Forzley, Oakland County Health Division manager/health officer, said infants and the elderly are particularly at risk, as are people with impaired circulation, asthma and cardiac problems.

“Residents can take simple, common-sense precautions to avoid cold-related health problems,” she said.

When possible, residents are urged to stay indoors and maintain a warm home. The thermostat should be set at 65 degrees or higher, according to officials — 70 degrees if an infant or individual age 75 or older resides in the home. Infants less than one year old should be dressed in warm clothes, officials say, even when indoors. People should weatherproof doors and windows to trap heat inside their homes and check heating units, since poorly operating or damaged heating units can release carbon monoxide gas. Carbon monoxide detectors should be tested for proper operation and battery life.

Residents need to keep their pets safe during inclement weather, too. Officials say outdoor pets should be kept indoors when temperatures drop below 32 degrees. When pets come indoors, residents should wipe their legs and stomachs clean to eliminate the possibility of them licking salt or antifreeze off their paws or other areas.

If people must go outside, officials say to wear protective gear — such as hats, mittens or gloves, a warm coat, waterproof boots, and a scarf to protect the lungs — and avoid exertion while shoveling or snow blowing if they have heart disease or high blood pressure.

“Cold air adds to the strain of the body, so if you’re going to shovel your snow, do it in short duration and try to use a smaller shovel instead of those huge shovels when you are lifting the snow,” Cieslik said. “Also, don’t try to go out there and think that you can clear your whole driveway in one time. Go out and do little pieces at a time, come back in and warm up, then go back out and work on it again. If you can’t do it, go ahead and give us a call, and we’ll be happy to help you out.”

Those who do venture outside should watch for signs of frostbite — which include loss of feeling or pale appearance of fingers, toes or face — as well as signs of hypothermia, which include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, drowsiness and exhaustion. As wind speed increases, officials say, heat is carried away from a person’s body more rapidly and could lead to severe hypothermia. Wet clothing can also make you more prone to hypothermia, so people are asked to remove any clothing that becomes damp or wet.

“Try to have as little exposed skin as possible — be sure to cover up your face and fingers, and don’t be outside if you don’t have to be outside,” Cieslik said.

Another way to stay safe during inclement weather is to minimize travel and stay off the roads, if possible. If travel is necessary, officials suggest keeping a full tank of gas and an emergency preparedness kit — filled with extra gloves, hats, scarves, snow boots, an ice scraper, a small shovel and a bag of kitty litter or sand — in the vehicle.

“Make sure that you have blankets in your car to keep you warm if you do go off the road and a cellphone to call 911 and get some help,” Cieslik added.

Cieslik said the city of Rochester will continue to staff the fire station during inclement weather this winter, and he encouraged people in need of special assistance of any kind during hazardous weather to call the fire station’s nonemergency phone number, (248) 651-4470.

For more information about being prepared before, during and after an emergency or disaster, visit www.michigan.gov/beprepared. For road conditions, call or visit the Michigan State Police’s Winter Travel Advisory Hotline at (800) 381-8477 or visit www.michigan.gov/roadconditions.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Mary Beth Almond at malmond@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1060.