Surviving winter storms is a team effort: Weather wisdom from Department of Emergency Management

High winds, snow, toppling trees. Can it get worse? It has. Top photo: Ice at the Port of Friday Harbor in 1989. Bottom photo: Lopez Island in 1916. - Town and County Department of Emergency Management
High winds, snow, toppling trees. Can it get worse? It has. Top photo: Ice at the Port of Friday Harbor in 1989. Bottom photo: Lopez Island in 1916.
— image credit: Town and County Department of Emergency Management

Town and County Department of Emergency Management

Our clocks have rolled back, the rains have arrived, and it is time to give quick thought to the fact that we’re likely to see winter weather in the islands before long.

Each year, I try to put out some gentle advice about what we should do to prepare, and every year that we have a winter storm, even a mild one, I hear from islanders who were caught off guard.

This year, I’m taking a slightly different approach and am going to highlight the shared responsibilities between individual islanders and the folks who work hard to take care of all of us during any sort of crisis. It’s a team effort, and the islands’ ability to weather a storm, of any kind, depends on everyone pitching in and doing their part.

Here’s a simple and by no means exhaustive list.

When there’s ice or snow on the roadways:
— Islanders: Drivers should respect the hazardous conditions, use common sense, and slow down or stay off the roads when they’re dangerous. Don’t be over-confident with your 4WD; you’d be amazed at the number of SUVs that end up in island ditches each winter.

If you live on a private road, or have a business or facility that will need plowing, make those arrangements with a private contractor now and don’t wait until the onset of a snowstorm to try to find someone.

Be self-sufficient. Have enough food and other supplies on hand so that you don’t need to run into town if you don’t have to. HERE'S A LINK to more information on how to prepare.

— Local public agencies: The county has placed blue/white road freezing indicators at traditional problem areas. When the ice or snow is heavy, county and town crews will sand and plow public roads, prioritizing their efforts based on the SNOW ROUTES. They will work literally non-stop to try to keep roads passable for critical needs, but in nearly all storms or freezes, roads will still be treacherous — plan accordingly.

Emergency responders, as always, will make every effort to take care of business, no matter the weather. That said, islanders need to know that in heavy snow there might be places they can’t get to, or things they can’t do safely. Islanders need to use common sense and caution, and embrace a certain amount of self sufficiency. Call 911 if you need help, but don’t forget to take care of yourself too.

When it gets extremely cold:
— Islanders: Residents should take steps now to protect their homes and property from damage due to freezing pipes (CLICK HERE for a link with more information).

Again, be self-sufficient and ensure that you have a way to keep you, your family, and your pets warm and comfortable. And if your house sits empty at all during the winter, shut off your water, as often extreme cold comes with power outages.

If you live in a house that’s hard to keep warm, you might want to have a back-up plan with friends or family to have a place to stay for a few nights if things get uncomfortable.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is the need for islanders to take care of one another. Check in on your neighbor’s house when things get cold, call that older couple who you see at the Post Office to see how they’re doing, and offer to split some fire wood for the fellow recovering from knee surgery. Islanders helping islanders is an old and essential part of life here.

— Local public agencies: If things get truly icy, the local Red Cross and other agencies may set up warming shelters at various points in the islands. These won’t be luxury accommodations, but can provide a warm place for people who need to get out of the cold.

Local water agencies will work hard to keep water systems intact, and they’ll count on homeowners (especially those whose homes might sit empty) to make sure that frozen pipes are found and repaired quickly.

And as always, if you or someone else is in trouble, call 911. Emergency responders will do whatever they can do to help.

When the power goes out:
— Islanders: Simply being prepared is the thing. Have a safe way to keep your house warm and lit, have a radio and flashlights on hand (check your batteries), a back-up phone that doesn’t require power, and please do not call 911 to wonder when the power is coming back.

OPALCO has a dedicated outage number (376-3599) and their recording will be updated as soon as any info is available." More detailed outage updates are posted at WWW.OPALCO.COM. If you don't have access to the Web, consider calling a friend who does for the most up-to-date outage information online.

— Local public agencies: Rest assured that as soon as an outage happens, crews are racing to fix it. No matter the weather or location, line crews are working to get things restored. Luckily for us, multi-day power outages are rare in the islands these days, but not unheard of, and definitely worth a little advance preparation.

In conclusion:
Be self-sufficient. Use common sense. Take the steps ahead of time to ensure that you and your family are able to ride out even the most serious weather in comfort and style. Getting prepared doesn’t need to be time consuming or expensive, and it’s something every islander has a responsibility to do.

With luck we’ll have a mild winter, but taking a little time now to prepare for the alternative is never a bad idea.

— Brendan Cowan is manager of the Town of Friday Harbor and San Juan County Department of Emergency Management. Contact him at

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