Dust Storm Survival

There are many instances of nature’s fury for which one should be prepared. Which scenarios you should prepare for are mainly determined by where you live. Some areas are prone for earthquakes. Other locations are susceptible to tropical storms and hurricanes. Some are at risk for severe blizzards, while others live with the significant probability of tornadoes. I live in the American Southwest. We don’t get a lot of rain, (although we do get significant flooding,) and we don’t get a lot of tornadoes or earthquakes to brag about, but we do get dust storms… a lot of them…and this time of year is the main season for them.

And they don’t look like this…

the-dusty-road

They look like THIS…

On average, these dust storms, known as haboobs, claim several lives every year in the Southwest.

Sadly, it does not need to be so. Dust storms, (even severe ones,) need not be a survival challenge.

If you were to ever find yourself facing one of these storms, there are a few simple rules you can follow to help prevent yourself from becoming a statistic.

First, if you are driving (which is the most dangerous place to be in a haboob,) follow these steps outlined by the National Weather Service*:

  • If dense dust is observed blowing across or approaching a roadway, pull your vehicle off the pavement as far as possible, stop, turn off lights, set the emergency brake, take your foot off of the brake pedal to be sure the tail lights are not illuminated.
  • Don’t enter the dust storm area if you can avoid it.
  • If you can’t pull off the roadway, proceed at a speed suitable for visibility, turn on lights and sound horn occasionally. Use the painted center line to help guide you. Look for a safe place to pull off the roadway.
  • Never stop on the traveled portion of the roadway.

This may all seem like a bit much, but fatalities happen every summer on the highways where drivers are often surprised by the sudden decrease in visibility. It’s an especially bad recipe when one is traveling at high speeds. Also, pulling off the road, turning off your lights, and keeping your foot off the brake are not overreactions either. (Note how drivers were reacting to the zero visibility near the end of the video.) When motorists can’t see anything ahead, they often try to look for any tail lights that may be in front of them to help lead the way. If the car they see is stopped for any reason, it is common for them to run right into the back of it, mistaking the brake lights for tail lights.

Besides affecting drivers, these strong dust storms have other effects as well. For instance, just last week, 30,000 households lost power due to the intense winds associated with one of these storms. The winds can top 50 mph (80 km per hour,) although they are usually around 30 mph. In either case, the winds have the potential to cause significant damage to property and to the surrounding landscape. Also a hazard is the large amount of dust that one of these storms can deposit in its wake. Besides blanketing everything in the storm’s path in dirt and sand, the dust can jam machinery or cause other problems in electrical equipment.

  • In order to be prepared for any environmental effects, you should prepare as you would for any other weather-related storm.  Know that anything not tied down may blow over.
  • Cover anything that may be sensitive to the dust.

In addition to the obvious physical effects that these storms can create, there are health hazards as well. For those with respiratory problems, these storms will exacerbate their troubles in breathing. Also, a recent study has suggested that additional health threats result from what is hiding in the dust itself. Fungi, bacteria, heavy metals, and chemicals from pollutants have the potential for negative long term health effects.

So what should one do?

  • Stay out of the dust storm if you can avoid it. Seek shelter inside until the storm passes.
  • If you must be outside, or if you are suddenly caught outside in one of these storms, cover your nose and mouth with a cloth or (preferably) a respirator mask. (By the way, a respirator mask makes a great addition to any bug out bag, go kit, or auto emergency kit as this scenario illustrates.) It is also wise to shield your eyes with some kind of protective eye gear such as glasses, sunglasses, goggles, etc.

If you follow these simple steps, you should have no problems if you were to ever face one of these serious dust storms. In reality, they are more fun to watch and to experience than they are to fear. Just like other kinds of weather events, as long as you take the necessary precautions, you’ll usually be just fine. However, just like other storms, if you choose not to be aware and to prepare, it just may be a matter of survival.

For more safety information from the National Weather Service, visit:

*http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/brochures/duststrm.htm

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