Non-Arizonans know about the scorching heat during the Phoenix summer. However, they don’t know that summer doubles as our rainy season. The official “monsoon season” in the Southwest starts June 15 and lasts until September 30.
Some residents like the break from the 100+ degree heat and the rare wonder of precipitation falling from the heavens. Others dislike the Midwest-style humidity and clouds that blot out our cheery sunlight.
Love it or hate it, everyone in the Valley needs to be careful when monsoons roll around. While heat poses a serious danger if you aren’t prepared — learn 7 ways to survive the Phoenix summer heat — the monsoon storms bring their own deadly dangers. Read on to learn about those dangers and how you can stay safe.
1. Dust storms
Monsoon thunderstorms in southern Arizona often create conditions that result in a mile-high walls of dust. These can roll over the Valley and turn day into darkness. Even without these, less dramatic dust storms often preceding and following a monsoon storm.
Dust storms make it hard to see while driving. They also expose those outdoors to medical complications like asthma and Valley Fever. Read our detailed write-up on the dangers of dust storms and what you need to do to make it through.
2. Flash foods
Mention floods and Phoenix in the same sentence and your audience will ask incredulously, “Floods in the desert?” Yes, despite only receiving 12.5 inches of rain a year, we tend to get it all at once.
As a somewhat ironic consequence of our dry, hard-packed earth, the soil doesn’t absorb water very well. When we get a sudden downpour, the water tends to run along the surface and collect in washes. Washes are those parts of the landscape that look like a dry riverbed, because that’s exactly what they are.
When you hear about rain anywhere in the region, you would do well to avoid washes and other low desert areas, as well as any existing water. Water can collect and travel through washes at high speeds. A hiker can easily drown, and cars can get stuck or float away. Tragedy already struck this year in the mountain to the northeast, killing 9 people swimming in a river.
When you’re in the city, floods are a major concern as well. With enough rain, sections of freeways and roadways will flood, and so will low-lying underpasses. Fortunately, most of these places are clearly marked. If you see a sign that tells you to avoid that spot while flooded, please pay attention. Otherwise you might be stuck until the fire department rescues you — or something worse could happen.
Finally, if your home insurance provider offered to sell you flood insurance and you just laughed, you might want to reconsider. Homes can easily flood if the circumstances line up, as one unfortunate Ahwatukee family found out last year. If you live in a low-lying area and a storm approaches, find out where you can pick up sand for sandbags.
Arizona’s lightning storms are relatively tame in comparison to the Midwest’s massive electrical displays, but we still experience quite a few. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, Arizona and New Mexico see 1.5 million lightning strikes a year. That equates to 15 percent of the strikes in the lower 48 states.
Obviously, you want to avoid being struck by lightning if you can help it. Every year hundreds of people are injured country-wide and, on average, 49 people die. You can keep track of lightning deaths and injuries through the National Weather Service.
Almost every lightning death takes place outdoors, so if you see a storm approach, get inside a structure (one with electrical or plumbing fixtures) or vehicle (make sure it has a metal roof). According to the National Weather Service, if you can hear thunder, you’re close enough to be hit by lightning, so don’t wait until you see flashes.
If there’s absolutely no shelter around, the NWS recommends you:
- Move away from elevated areas
- Don’t lie flat on the ground
- Don’t stand under an isolated tree
- Stay away from rocky cliffs for shelter
- Avoid bodies of water
- Stay away from large metal objects
Bonus: Poor Driving
Spend a few minutes on the Valley freeways and you’ll quickly discover that we aren’t the best drivers around — although several Valley cities are rated as the best in the nation for motorists in terms of infrastructure, costs, etc. Our speed tends to be too fast, our signaling could be called sporadic and, at certain freeway spots, you might suddenly find yourself emergency braking as traffic come to a dead stop from 70 mph.
If your hair already stands on end at the thought of driving while the roads are dry, it gets much worse when the roads are wet. As soon as it starts to rain, accidents happen right and left. We’ve personally seen 11 accidents on a three mile stretch of freeway immediately after a heavy rain (it was US-60 in Tempe if you’re curious).
It doesn’t help that in addition to the slick roads and flooding, the sun often stays out or pops out shortly after, which turns the wet roadways into mirrors so you can’t see lane lines. You could also get blinded depending on the direction of travel.
Our recommendation when a monsoon storm rolls through would be to stay indoors for a few hours after it passes. If you have to be out and about, stick to surface streets when possible and drive as defensively as you can. Also, don’t leave your sunglasses at home; you might actually need them.
– Justin Ferris, Phoenix.org