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The winter of 2013-2014 is definitely going to be one for the books. This winter most of the country was introduced to a new term: Polar Vortex. Even without watching The Weather Channel to get the full definition, by now we all know what it means: bitter arctic cold and strong winds. In some parts of the country, wind chills dropped lower than -50 degrees Fahrenheit. The really tough part of this unusually cold weather is that it has been staying around for more than a day or so at a time, and after a brief warm-up returns with a fury.

Places that rarely experience cold and snow, like Louisiana and other parts of the Deep South, have been hit with temperatures well below freezing. As hard as these extremes are on people who risk frostbite and overexertion from shoveling snow or pushing cars stuck in snow, the Polar Vortex has also taken a toll on homes and commercial buildings. Even buildings in northern regions where cold winters are the norm are experiencing problems caused by the unseasonably cold weather.

Perhaps the most damaging of these is frozen pipes that burst and leaking roofs caused by ice buildup and/or ice dams. Both of these problems cause water to leak into homes and buildings. A burst or cracked pipe leaks water directly into living and work spaces, while ice buildup or an ice dam can cause water to leak through roofs and ceilings and down the inside of walls. Both result in water damage that must be cleaned up quickly and correctly.

Cleaning up most hard surface floors is a straightforward process. After the leak is identified and repaired, all that’s left is mopping or vacuuming up the water and then cleaning and drying the floor. Water damage that has occurred to carpets, drywall, painted surfaces or paneling requires a professional cleaning process and needs attention as quickly as possible.

As much water as possible must be removed from carpets, but 100% of the water can’t be vacuumed out. If the carpet has a pad, that has to be dried as well. The process usually involves pulling back the carpet and the pad and allowing them to dry. If properly dried, carpeting can often be cleaned and salvaged. If drywall or paneling has been damaged it will probably have to be removed and replaced. This is not uncommon for walls or ceilings have experienced water damage due to roof ice.

Why is such thorough and quick action necessary after a water leak? Mold. Mold thrives in damp dark areas like under carpeting or inside walls. It can take weeks or even months before mold may spread enough to be noticed, but it can begin growing in as little as 24-48 hours. Once mold gets a foothold, it can cause respiratory problems and even more property damage. Removing it requires the services of a professional trained in mold remediation.

Winters can be difficult enough in the northern regions during a normal season. But this season has been anything but normal. The best defense against winter’s fury is to be prepared. Prepare your home or business by making sure vulnerable water pipes are adequately insulated against freezing temperatures. Routinely check roofs for potential leaks and areas where ice may build up. The best action for preventing ice dams is proper insulation and ventilation of attic spaces.

Most important of all, prepare yourself for winter emergencies. Keep a winter survival kit in your car that contains snack bars, flashlight, extra hats and gloves and a couple of warm blankets just in case you become stranded. In the home, keep an emergency supply of food and fresh water to last for a few days. It’s a good idea to also have a battery powered radio, and if you have one, fuel for a supplemental heat source in case of a power outage.

The term Polar Vortex may be new and sound a bit sinister, but it’s just one more reason we need to plan ahead and be prepared to co-exist with Nature – even in extreme conditions. From the great white north all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s all part of the adventure.

Polar Vortex Visits Much of the Country

Polar Vortex Visits Much of the Country