You’ve probably seen the jaw-dropping pictures or video of a mile-high wall of dust rolling at 50 mph over the Valley, devouring the comparatively tiny skyscrapers like a tidal wave of death and destruction. OK, so “death and destruction” might be a bit of an overstatement, although with the sky turned orange/red, it certainly looks ominous.
In reality, these dust storms (also called “haboobs,” but more on that later), aren’t as scary as they look. Typically they roll on leaving the city little worse for wear, aside from the new sand dunes in parking lots.
Also, you get plenty of warning because — just like those movie scenes where a room full of government officials simultaneously get word of a developing disaster — every cellphone in the Valley suddenly sounds alarms an hour or more beforehand with warnings.
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions; dust storms can be deadly if you aren’t careful. There are also some serious medical problems you need to know about. Keep reading to find out how you can stay safe.
1. “Pull Aside – Stay Alive”
The Arizona Department of Transportation started the catchy “Pull Aside – Stay Alive” website in response to the rash of car accidents that invariably occurs during major dust storms. As the dust rolls through, visibility can drop to near zero, similar to a heavy fog or a blizzard.
Readers from other states that actually experience heavy fog and blizzards will recognize the dangers involved. Unfortunately, longtime Valley residents aren’t used to low-visibility situations and tend to just barrel on through. That can unsurprisingly end in an accident.
Now, the following advice applies mostly when you’re on the freeway, especially on I-10 south of Chandler. Within the city, the visibility rarely gets to dangerous levels, thanks to the buildings and trees breaking up the dust and wind. However, please err on the side of caution if you encounter low-visibility patches in town.
When on the Interstate or freeway, instead of the “gun it and pray” approach, ADOT suggests that as soon as you see a major dust storm approach, you should pull completely off the road and park, but leave your seatbelt on. Turn off all vehicle lights – and take your foot off the break – so other cars still on the road don’t try to “follow” you.
While ADOT covered most of the dangers, we have another one to watch for. During the dust storm, you should obviously keep the windows rolled up. However, it’s also important to set your car’s environmental controls to in-cabin circulation. That will keep your car from drawing in dust-filled air. This becomes especially essential on cars more than a decade old.
Cars manufactured within the past 10 years (and earlier for some models) should have a cabin air filter that will keep the dust out of the cabin despite the setting. However, if your filter needs replacing, it could still let in dust, and that doesn’t only result in a coughing fit, as we’ll discuss next. (As an aside, given how much dust we deal with in Arizona, it’s a good idea to check and replace your cabin filter more often than the manufacturer recommends.)
2. “Dust, dust everywhere …”
Dust storms are an awesome sight, but with less-than-hurricane winds, you could stay outside and brave it without being blown away or killed by flying debris (unless a tree branch or palm frond falls on you). However, there’s another worry besides the wind.
The dust in a Phoenix dust storm tends to be incredibly fine. That means if you’re outside, no matter how careful you are, some of it will end up in your lungs. For people with respiratory problems, that could lead to an asthma attack or other breathing complications.
For everyone else, there’s another danger: Valley Fever. According to the CDC, Valley Fever comes from a fungal infection in the lungs and the flu-like symptoms can include fever, chest pain, coughing and sometimes a rash. It isn’t usually deadly and most people recover on their own. However, more severe cases might require drugs to clear up and people with weakened immune systems can develop chronic pneumonia or, in extreme cases, meningitis.
The fungus lives in the soil of the Southwest and gets into your lungs when you breath dust. This can happen at any time dust gets stirred up, but with a dust storm your odds of infection increase exponentially. If you must be outside, make sure you wear a good breathing mask rated for fine dust. If you get flu-like symptoms after a dust storm, it’s advisable to consult your doctor.
3. “What’s in a name?”
Earlier we mentioned that a Phoenix dust storm can also be called a “haboob.” When you see news reports, the reporters will use “haboob” and “dust storm” interchangeably. However, if you’re tempted to use the term, you should know the risks.
First, you risk people not familiar with the term, or who were only half paying attention to what you said, giving you odd looks. Of course, that’s half the fun of using the term, so no worries there.
A bigger risk, however, comes from saying the word around a know-it-all. Before you can finish the word, this person will begin to smugly explain (often at unnecessary length) that “haboob” actually only refers to dust and sand storms in Africa. If you encounter this person, you should also refrain from uttering the word “monsoon” or you’ll get a similar lecture centered on India.
Now, in both cases, this person will be wrong. However, if you argue with them you risk your time, your precious brain power, a possible assault charge when you end up punching them or the transformation into a know-it-all yourself. It’s better to just let it go and walk away.
If you’re curious, though, here’s the answer to both the “haboob” and “monsoon” arguments. The major dictionaries do define haboobs and monsoons as being in Africa (the phrase “haboob” originated in Sudan) and India, respectively. However, those are also the regions that experience them the most.
Technically, per the National Weather Service, a haboob occurs whenever a thunderstorm suddenly collapses or creates a “downburst,” which violently blasts air downward and outward, pushing sand, dust and other debris in front of it in a vast, high wall.
That’s why a haboob can appear suddenly on an otherwise pleasant day. And, that’s exactly what happens sometimes in Arizona. It certainly was the origin of “the big one” back on July 5, 2011. Most Phoenix dust storm photos and videos that are widely circulated were shot on that day, incidentally.
By contrast, a regular dust storm requires a windy day and results from strong winds stirring up dust and debris. So, in Arizona all haboobs are dust storms, but not all dust storms are haboobs.
Similarly, “monsoon” just means a seasonal shift in wind direction. For India, instead of blowing from the north, which brings dry air from over land, the wind blows from the southeast, which brings wet air off the ocean. In Phoenix (and the rest of the Southwest), our shift happens in June/July when the wind switches from blowing west over the desert to blowing from the east or southeast carrying water vapor from the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the National Weather Service calls it the North American Monsoon System and created a website about it called monsoonsafety.org.
That being said, not every storm that happens during our “monsoon” season (June 15 to September 30) meets the technical definition of a “monsoon.” However, if you try to be that accurate when you talk about the weather, you’re going to run out of people who will talk to you. And who wants to risk that?
– Justin Ferris, Phoenix.org