We are lucky to not encounter many weather-related dangers in the beautiful Southwest. But, even in our area the weather can spring some unexpected situations our way. Here’s what to do if you find yourself in a severe rainstorm, haboob, or even a lightening storm.
The word “haboob” is derived from Arabic, meaning “blasting” or “drifting” and is a severe dust storm. Haboobs are giant walls of dust created from high winds rushing out of a collapsing thunderstorm. Winds can be as strong as 22-62 mph lifting incredible amounts of dust and debris as it travels. Occurring most frequently in dry land areas, in the U.S., they are most often seen in the deserts of Arizona, including around the cities of Yuma and Phoenix, New Mexico-including Albuquerque, in eastern California, and in Texas.
The biggest dangers associated with a haboob are respiratory issues due to the air quality change from the dust and debris, along with potential for flying debris to cause injury. If you are caught on the road, your range of vision can be reduced to nothing, putting everybody that is moving at risk of colliding with what is unseen.
If you know a haboob is forming (the weather service will typically alert the public via radio alerts, or on smart phones), stay indoors until it has passed. If you are outdoors and cannot find shelter, use a hankerchief, extra shirt, or any type of fabric to create a mask for yourself that covers your nose and mouth. Put on your sunglasses, even reading glasses if that is all you have available, to help shield your eyes. If you are caught on the road, it is best to get to a safe location, and stay in your car until the storm has passed. If you are on a road/highway, pull over as far off the road as you can, take your foot off the brake, put your emergency brake on, and keep your windows up until the storm passes. Do not keep your lights on (even the brake) as a way to alert other drivers of your presence. According to the National Weather Service,
“In the past, motorists driving in dust storms have pulled off the roadway, leaving lights on. Vehicles approaching from the rear and using the advance car’s lights as a guide have inadvertently left the roadway and in some instances, collided with the parked vehicle. Make sure all your lights are off when you park off the roadway.”
Wait until you have visibility of at least 300 feet ahead of you before getting back onto the road. Keep in mind that heavy rains may follow the dust storm. Which leads us to the next weather occurrence. . .
Flash floods can occur after an intense amount of rain, like that caused by the monsoons during summers in the southwest. Rapidly moving water sweeps through the path of least resistance (dips in the road, down mountainsides, etc), and if you are caught in the stream, you can easily find yourself in danger within seconds. The best bet is prevention:
- Avoid areas that have a current flash flood warning in place.
- If you’re in low-lying ground when a flash flood warning occurs, or you see the danger ahead, get to higher ground immediately.
- Do not let children play in washes or near storm drains during times of heavy rain. It only takes around 6″ of quickly moving water to knock down an adult, and much less for a child to be overwhelmed by the force of water.
Here in Tucson, there are washes, dips in the road, and other areas that most residents know to avoid during storms. Yet, nearly half of all flood-related fatalities in the U.S. involve vehicles. Most of these deaths happen when people drive into flooded highway dips or low drainage areas. Saving your life can be as easy as turning your car around when you see water on the road. Never try to drive through flooded roadways, and do NOT drive around barricades. You can lose control of a vehicle due to stalling in just 6″ of water, and a car can be swept away by water that is only 12″ deep, if moving rapidly enough.
If you find yourself in trouble and your vehicle becomes submerged, stay calm and wait until your vehicle fills with water. You’ll then be able to open the doors without fighting the pressure. It is also a good idea to keep a hammer or window breaking device (like this one here) within easy reach in your vehicle, to help you if you need to get out of your car. The following can help you once you’re outside of the vehicle, or if, for example, you’re out hiking when a flash flood sneaks up on you:
- Work to keep your feet pointed downstream (to avoid head injury)
- Try to find a surface to help you stay above water (think a large branch, the top of a vehicle, etc).
- Do your best to go above obstacles-don’t try to swim under, as the force of the water can hold you down and prevent you from resurfacing.
- If you can find safety by standing on a vehicle, tree, or any other object, do so and wait until help arrives. Do not attempt to go back into the water.
- When help arrives, follow instructions and try not to panic, as that can put you and the rescue team at risk.
The video below shows how quickly water can overcome an area, without warning- it is from 2018, near Phoenix, AZ:
As much as we all love a good rainstorm, it is often accompanied by lightening, which can be a serious danger. Roughly 240,000 people are injured by lightening strikes each year. Lightening kills an average of 52 people per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That amount is only second to flooding as far as weather related deaths are concerned.
Lightning strikes can produce severe injuries, and have a mortality rate of between 10% and 30%, with up to 80% of survivors sustaining long-term injuries. These severe injuries are not usually caused by thermal burns, since the current is too brief to greatly heat up tissues; instead, nerves and muscles may be directly damaged by the high voltage producing holes in their cell membranes, a process called electroporation. Strikes that cause injury don’t always have to occur directly; indirect strikes can occur through ground current, or by lightening traveling through water or a metal object.
Again, the best way to stay safe during a lightening storm is prevention:
- Go indoors if you hear thunder. If you are able to hear thunder, you are able to suffer from a lightening strike. Don’t assume that a lack of rain means you are safe.
- Leave elevated spaces- tall buildings, hilltops, and any other high elevation space is more likely to receive a lightening strike.
- Avoid contact with water or metal objects. Neither is more likely to receive a lightening strike, but as both elements conduct electricity, the risk of more severe injuries goes up if you’re in contact with them if/when you’re struck by lightening.
- When indoors, stay away from windows, doors, and walls. Electricity from lightening can travel through wiring and metal bars in walls, and can go through windows as well.
If you can’t find more substantial shelter in a sturdy building, a metal-topped vehicle can keep you safe in the event of a lightning strike. If you are driving, pull to the side of the road, turn on your hazard lights, turn off the engine and wait out the storm.
It is a widespread myth that the reason vehicles provide protection from lightning is due to the tires. In actuality, lightening flies around the outside of a car, and the majority of the current flows from the car’s metal cage into the ground below. In essence, a car acts like a mobile Faraday cage-an enclosure used to block electromagnetic fields.However, not all vehicles are created equal anymore. Some cars, like convertibles, do not have metal roofs, or all metal parts for that matter, which impedes the electricity’s flow through the car.
Some portions of the current can flow through the vehicle’s electrical systems and metal appendages including radios, cell phone chargers, GPS units as well as car door handles, foot pedals, the steering column and the steering wheel, causing the air bags to deploy. The National Lighting Safety Institute reports that some vehicles struck by lightning experience external damage, including pitting and arcing, as well as internal damage to electronic systems and components.
With the ability to hand crank a window long gone getting out can be difficult. Keep a hammer or window breaking device (like this one) under the front seat so you can smash out a window if needed. As a last resort kick the corners of the windshield where it’s the most vulnerable to being dislodged. Avoid touching anything metal within the car. You also should not touch the radio or talk on a cell phone, especially if it is connected to your vehicle.
Once the electrical current has passed through the vehicle and entered into the ground, it is technically safe to exit the vehicle. But, of course consider your surroundings- if the storm is still roaring, wait until it has passed.
Weather systems are powerful and beautiful at the same time; being prepared and knowing what to do if they turn dangerous is the difference between being able to walk away and tell an amazing tale, or not. Stay safe, and enjoy all our world has to offer.
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