The surreal dust storms experienced by the inhabitants of the Southwest resemble images seen in apocalyptic movies. With walls of rolling dust rising as high as 10,000 feet, these surreal dust storms are real and hit the region several times every year, rerouting aircraft and turning daylight to dusk.
For geographical and terrain reasons, Arizona experiences more than its fair share of dust storms. According to the National Climatic Data Center, Phoenix has experienced over 100 dust storms in the last ten years. These range in intensity from mild to unbelievable.
Typically, these brief but intense storms begin when air is pushed down and forward by a storm front. While compelling to watch, it has to be noted that dust storms bring dangers, especially to those on the highway or freeways.
Visibility can be reduced to less than 12 feet in just moments. I remember a news report from October r 2013 when a dust storm was a major factor in causing a 19-car pile-up just south of Phoenix. The event injured 12 and killed three. The highway was closed for over 10 hours as law enforcement, and rescue workers struggled to extricate victims. The images of twisted steel and cars lodged under semi-trailers are still discussed today.
Dust storms are quick to develop and very difficult to predict. There are ways, however, to protect yourself and minimize the danger.
Dealing with dust devils
One phenomenon that must be mentioned in any discussion of dust storms is a dust devil. These are seen all over the U.S. and are usually more of an interesting curiosity than anything.
Dust devils are powerful, well-formed whirlwinds. They tend to be long-lasting as well. Ranging in size from a couple of meters to 50 meters, they are the product of updrafts. On a small scale, they are of no danger to people.
On a larger scale, however, dust devils can be very dangerous, especially to drivers. The force of the vortex passing over a car at highway speeds can cause the vehicle to be pushed slightly. If the event is sudden and the driver makes an over-correction in steering, tragedy can follow. This, combined with flying dirt and debris, can cause a major safety problem.
I’ve discussed the topic of dust storms with Dan, a ranger in Arizona. He has seen his share of dust devils and dust storms. “At the beginning, it’s this light sand— then all of a sudden it’s like someone throws a blanket on the windshield.”
He added, “Having lived here my whole life, I know that even when light sand is coming, I start slowing way down to 40 miles per hour because I know a blackout could be coming.”
Most people already know they need to always have an emergency kit with them when they drive. However, if you live in an area known for having dust storms, you should consider adding a few extra items to the emergency kit, particularly dust masks and goggles.
Dust particulates can cause a real danger during a storm. This is especially true for anyone who may suffer from breathing challenges. When they are inhaled, dust particles can get into the respiratory system and end up in the bronchial tubes.
Normal responses such as coughing and sneezing do not remove these particles. They can ultimately affect the body’s immune system and exacerbate lung issues such as asthma or bronchitis.
The answer is a well-made dust mask. It is important to choose a mask that will work to filter the fine dust particles and not allow them to slip through or around the mask. High-quality dust goggles are the second item that should be added to any kit.
A balance must be struck between restricting airflow and avoiding fogging. Urgent care facilities and emergency rooms across the area are always busy following dust storms. All the flying debris and dust will cause painful and serious injury if you don’t protect your face.
As with so many other natural weather events across the country, education is the key to staying safe. Dust storms are a spectacular natural phenomenon, and their appearance is known to draw people out to take pictures or film the entire event to later post it on social media. For the most part, the dust storms are, harmless and are over quickly, but we must also understand the dangerous side of dust storms.
If you live in snow-covered areas, you are probably familiar with “whiteout” conditions, and you’ve experienced it before. In the same manner, those living in the southwest have learned that dust storms can cause brownouts. Sometimes there is enough dust in the air that streetlights come on in the middle of the day.
As with most weather events, if you follow the general safety guidelines, you will be able to share with your friends how you survived.
Safety tips for when you find yourself on the road
Dust storms are most dangerous when they engulf roadways
1. Be aware
The ultimate tool of defensive driving is awareness. This applies to every aspect of driving, including weather. Natives and long-time residents of the Southwest already know that dust storms can develop quickly when a storm front is brewing.
Awareness and understanding of the possible danger is the first step to dealing with it. When there is even a chance of a dust storm, it is best to listen to local radio or the weather service. These two sources can provide you with notice of a developing dust storm.
2. Look for signs
There are telltale signs of a developing dust storm that everyone should know. The most common sign is a general haziness that develops in one part of the sky.
In Arizona, this haziness is generally seen in the south. It will appear to be a hazy brown discoloration of the sky. It may be low in the sky, so keep your eyes open. This is the initial stage of a dust storm. The further off you see the storm developing, the more options you have to deal with it.
3. Run to safety
If possible, work to outrun the storm. Generally, dust storms are slow-moving and can be avoided by rerouting your trip or simply working on getting ahead of or past the storm.
Some dust storms have been clocked at 75 miles per hour, which brings us to an important point: it is never safe to drive at high speeds. If it is not safe to outrun the storm, then it is time to pull over and wait for the dust storm to pass.
4. Slow down
As dust storms hit, visibility diminishes quickly. This causes an obvious danger of hitting other cars or being hit yourself. At 55 miles per hour, a vehicle needs almost 230 feet to come to a stop. That is a very long stretch and can be too much to overcome if a stopped car suddenly appears in front of you. Even if visibility is only slightly reduced, you are encouraged to maintain a four-second gap between you and all other vehicles in front of you when you can.
5. Get off the road
Drivers are advised to pull off the highway as soon as they can. Some folks are notorious for not slowing down no matter what, and this can often have lethal consequences. If you are on the road and the visibility drops below 300 feet, you should exit the highway or pull over. Whatever you do, do not stop in the lanes of traffic.
Once you are off the road, set your parking brake and take your foot off of the brake pedal. Also, make sure your turn signals and all other lights are off as well. In many cases, drivers use taillights of the vehicle in front of them as a navigation guide. If you are sitting stationary on the side of the road with lights on, you run the risk of being hit by another car.
If you are unable to safely pull off the road, turn on your headlights and turn your hazard lights off. Slow down and move forward cautiously. Use the highway’s centerline as a guide and pull over at the first safe area on the road.
6. Wait it out
Once you are stopped and have all lights off, it is important to stay put. Stay inside the car and shut all vents that draw air in from the outside. It can be dangerous to leave your vehicle primarily because of limited vision.
The danger of walking back onto the highway is very real, or even into areas where drop-offs exist. Stay inside and ride out the storm. They are known for passing quickly, and a few minutes of delay could save your life.
Dust storms are incredible, natural wonders that have a luring nature, and they tend to draw people out to witness their passing. However, dust storms can be a dangerous natural occurrence if you find yourself in traffic and don’t follow a few common-sense rules. Hopefully, this article will convince you that dust storms should be the attention they deserve and not just for social media exposure.
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