With walls of rolling dust rising as high as 10,000 feet, the surreal dust storms experienced by the Southwest resemble images seen in movies like The Mummy. Unlike the silver screen images, these storms are real and hit the region several times every year, rerouting aircraft and turning daylight to dusk.

Fast-Moving Threats

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For geographical and terrain reasons, Arizona experiences more than its fair share of dust storms. According the National Climatic Data Center, Phoenix has experienced over 100 dust storms in the last 10 years. These range 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. In October 2013, a dust storm was a major factor in 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

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The fine dust that travels inside of the storm will cover everything in its path.

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 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 an over-correction in steering is made by the driver, tragedy can follow. This, combined with flying dirt and debris, can cause a major safety problem.

Jack McCabe is a ranger at Picacho Peak State Park 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.”

Dust-Proof Gear

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The Respro Techno mask can protect you in a dust storm.

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, and they can ultimately affect the body’s immune system as well as 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. One that is highly recommended is the Respro Techno 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. Flying debris and dust can cause painful and serious injury. One company has managed to create a good balance: Bolle Tactical’s X1000 Dual Lens X1NDEi will serve anyone well.

Airborne Hazards

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As with so many other natural weather events across the country, education is the key to staying safe. Dust storms are spectacular in appearance and have a tendency to draw people outside, cameras in hand. They are for the most part harmless and over quickly, but we must also understand the dangerous side of dust storms. For example, those in snow-covered areas are familiar with “whiteout” conditions. In the same manner, 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.