Potentially hazardous weather events are becoming more frequent. Situations that aren’t the norm for certain locations are becoming a reality, leaving many people unprepared and at risk. We can’t predict what will happen every moment of every day. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t be prepared with the basics to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and ready for many situations. Today we’ll review a few weather events common to the southwest and also share an overview of what items to have ready in the event anything unexpected occurs.
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 handkerchief, 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.”
In Arizona we’ve sadly had our share of fatal car crashes on the I-10 freeway due to dust storms. After reading about a horrifying one I learned a haboob was the reason so many were involved. Not long after, I was forced to stop on the highway with my little girl when we were on our way to visit family in Phoenix. The dust was so thick I couldn’t see. This tip may have saved our lives.
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 (it’s a good idea to also keep a seatbelt cutter handy), to help you if you need to get out of your car. No tools? Pull out the headrests and use the prongs to break the windows. Or, put your back against the front seat and kick the corners of the front windshield several times. It’s not easy, but that area is more vulnerable than side windows that are slotted into the door.
If you’re heading into an area you know has issues with flash floods, like Sabina Canyon, check the weather report before going. It could save your life.
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 lightning, which can be a serious danger. Roughly 240,000 people are injured by lightning strikes each year. Lightning 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 lightning traveling through water or a metal object.
Again, the best way to stay safe during a lightning storm is prevention:
- Go indoors if you hear thunder. If you are able to hear thunder, you are able to suffer from a lightning 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 lightning strike.
- Avoid contact with water or metal objects. Neither is more likely to receive a lightning 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 lightning.
- When indoors, stay away from windows, doors, and walls. Electricity from lightning 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, lightning 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 car window long gone, getting out can be difficult. Keep a hammer or window breaking device (like this one) in every vehicle 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.
It’s suggested that every household have a “be ready” kit. This contains basic items that can help in a variety of situations. Sources share that these items should include:
- Water (one gallon per person per day for several days, for drinking and sanitation)
- Food (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)
- Glass breaker
- Seat belt cutter (keep one in every vehicle)
- Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
- Flashlight (also consider a portable solar powered light- this one doubles as a battery for other items)
- First aid kit (including scissors with a blunt end)
- Extra batteries (solar options as well as a larger capacity option that can power items in your household, like this)
- Masks (to help filter contaminated air)
- Plastic sheeting and duct tape (to shelter in place)
- Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties (for personal sanitation)
- Wrench or pliers (to turn off utilities)
- Manual can opener (for food)
- Local maps
- Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, passports, identification, deeds to the house, medical info, saved electronically or in a waterproof, portable container.
- Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery
- Soap, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes to disinfect surfaces
- Emergency blanket for each person
- Complete change of clothing appropriate for your climate and sturdy shoes
- Fire extinguisher
- Matches in a waterproof container
- Personal hygiene items
- Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
- Paper and pen
In addition to these items, consider your family’s individual needs.
- Prescription medications. About half of all Americans take a prescription medicine every day. An emergency can make it difficult for them to refill their prescription or to find an open pharmacy. Organize and protect your prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, and vitamins to prepare for an emergency.
- Non-prescription medications such as pain relievers, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids or laxatives
- Prescription eyeglasses and contact lens solution
- Infant formula, bottles, diapers, wipes and diaper rash cream
- Pet food, leashes, medications, and extra water for your pet
- Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children
It may seem like a lot, but many of these items are also available in relatively inexpensive, ready-made kits (like this option) or can be created by setting aside portions of what you already have at home. 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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