In most of the United States we think of summer as the season for outdoor fun: swimming, boating and grilling, among other things.
For those along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast, summer is also known as hurricane season. But in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas June and July are known as peak dust storm or “haboob” season, even though such storms can occur at other times of the year as well.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), haboobs are very strong dust and sand storms that move through hot and dry regions. They are common in arid regions such as the Sahara desert, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Gulf of Guinea.
As NOAA explains, haboobs form when air is forced down and pushed forward by the front of a traveling thunderstorm cell, it drags with it dust and debris. Winds of speeds up to 60 mph can stir up dust and sand and create a blowing wall as high as 10,000 feet. Haboobs usually last only 10 to 30 minutes, but on rare occasions can last longer and create hazardous conditions for ground transportation systems, air traffic and motorists.
Here are 10 things you and your clients need to know about dust storms, safety and insurance coverage:
In this July 29, 2016, file photo, a sand storm hits the Phoenix metro area in Laveen, Ariz. Arizona Department of Transportation engineers are beginning design work on a dust detection and warning system for Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix where dust storms often develop suddenly. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
1. How often do dust storms happen?
The general frequency of dust storms in the United States and the resulting damage are increasing, and they’re expected to continue to increase in frequency.
Arizona gets about three haboobs per year and smaller dust storms more frequently. A recent report from NOAA, based on statistics from 1955 through 2013, found that blowing dust was the third deadliest weather phenomenon in Arizona after flooding and extreme heat and cold.
Rudy Procela, of Eloy, Ariz., surveys the damage caused to his home after a neighbor’s roof ripped through his property the day after a violent storm hit the area Aug. 19, 2011, in Eloy. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
2. What are the most common dangers?
Almost anything can happen in a severe weather event, as we’ve seen with thunderstorms, lightning strikes and tornadoes. The most common dangers you personally can face from dust storms are:
- Quick and complete loss of visibility,
- Unsafe breathing conditions,
- Unsafe flying and driving conditions,
- Flying debris, and
- A lack of warning.
To make matters worse, dust storms, which are a result of thunderstorm activity, are often accompanied by heavy rain or mud storms. In addition, the risk of lightning and fire is increased.
The intensity of thunderstorms can give you an idea of the intensity of a coming dust storm. (Source: National Weather Service)
3. How intense are dust storms?
Haboobs are more intense than regular dust storms. Winds from 20 to 70 mph can be up to 60 miles wide, 10,000 feet high, and last up to three hours with zero visibility.
Although there is currently no scale to calculate the intensity of haboobs, the National Weather Service does have an intensity scale for thunderstorms that can give the public a sense of how strong a coming dust storm might be.
Firefighters are at the site of a 20-vehicle pileup on southbound U.S. Highway 99 in the southern San Joaquin Valley just south of Bakersfield, Calif., Nov. 2, 2015. Gusts of wind and rain whipped up dust that dropped visibility to near zero. Five people with minor injuries were taken to hospitals. (Kern County Fire Department via AP)
4. What kinds of damage can occur?
The potential damage from a dust storm or haboob can include the following:
- Power failures.
- Utility damage.
- Airport closings.
- Motor vehicle accidents (especially chain-reaction accidents).
- Roof and building damage.
- Exposure to valley fever.
- Asthma attacks.
Motorists are especially vulnerable to dust storms. The National Weather Service reported that one recent, rare dust storm affected central Illinois from mid-afternoon through mid-evening, reducing visibility to near zero for several hours. The low visibility was responsible for numerous traffic accidents and road closures, including I-72 from Jacksonville to Springfield, and I-74 from McLean to near Bloomington, and several state roads across Central Illinois.
If you live in an area that’s prone to dust storms, review your emergency kit regularly. (Photo: Shutterstock)
5. What are some safety precautions to take?
Your safety preparations for dust storms and haboobs should be similar to the precautions that you would take for severe thunderstorms, tornadoes or other severe weather.
One of the first steps is to have a weather alert app on your smartphone, especially if you live in or are traveling to a high-risk area. The University of Arizona has created a warning app specifically for dust storms in the state, available for iPhones and Android devices.
And remember S-R-R-P:
Secure = Close all doors, windows, vents, and any other airflow to the house.
Remove = If you have time, remove things on your property that could become flying debris.
Respond = To storm warnings and warnings to remain indoors.
Prepare = For disasters that can accompany haboobs such as monsoons, flooding, fires and power outages.
Gabriel Wheeler, left, and David Wheeler, right, pose for a photo in their storm shelter in Oklahoma City, May 8, 2015. Wheeler has the shelter stocked with blankets and flashlights. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
6. What should I do if I’m at home when a dust storm hits?
If you’re at home when a dust storm is expected, you should follow these safety instructions:
- Close all your windows, curtains and blinds, and shut all doors.
- Turn off fans or the air conditioning, or shut vents so that dust doesn’t come indoors.
- If the storm is severe, take shelter in a room without windows. It’s important to stay away from windows because the wind can pick up rocks, tree limbs or other items that may shatter windows and cause injury.
A truck makes its way down County Road 280 through a dust storm near Texroy, Texas, March 15, 2006. The high winds that kicked up the storm threaten to rekindle wildfires that had been sweeping through the region. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
7. What should I do if I’m in my car?
If you’re in your car or on the road while a dust storm is approaching, follow these safety instructions:
- Safely pull off the road while you still have visibility. Do not stop in a travel or emergency lane.
- Turn off car headlights and interior lights so that other travelers don’t assume you are on the road and try to follow you.
- Make sure all windows are rolled up and doors are tightly shut.
- Close air vents so dust doesn’t come into the vehicle.
- Stay in your vehicle with seatbelts fastened and wait for the storm to pass.
Related: 10 windiest large U.S. cities
A lone golfer tries to get in a few more swings on the practice range as a sand storm hits the Phoenix metro area Sunday, July 29, 2012, in Laveen, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
8. What should I do if I’m outdoors?
Dust storms are most common in the summer months when people are often enjoying outdoor activities. You can stay safe from dust storms by following these tips:
- Get people and pets indoors as soon as possible.
- Avoid breathing the air directly if you can.
- Take cover from flying objects, the same way you would from a tornado.
- Shield your eyes, nose and mouth. Cover your pet’s eyes, nose and mouth as well.
Related: 10 windiest large U.S. cities
Michelle Perez, a customer care representative at the American Red Cross store, unpacks and displays a two-person emergency preparedness kit in San Francisco, June 17, 2005. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
9. What equipment should I have?
Start by keeping some means of getting alerts or warnings. They’re often broadcast on radio and television, but you may not be watching or listening when the alert is issued. You can get a smartphone app and sign up for your local government’s emergency text alerts.
If you are relying on your smartphone as your main source of communication, be sure it’s fully charged and you have access to the phone’s charger as well as a back-up charging source.
Be sure your home or office has the same kind of emergency equipment that you would use in case of any power failure, including flashlights, a First Aid kit, a battery-operated AM/FM radio or one that receives all NOAA weather channels, and extra batteries for all devices.
You should also have a fire extinguisher as well as supplies to manage any flooding that may occur with the storm.
Finally, make sure you have bottled water and nonperishable food on hand as well as blankets and foul-weather gear.
A home and a car are damaged by an uprooted tree the day after a violent storm hit the area Aug. 19, 2011, in Eloy, Ariz. Homes were damaged, roofs were torn off businesses and a junior high school had part of its roof missing. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
10. What insurance coverage should I have?
Insurance coverage for property damage from dust storms or haboobs varies by location and policy. For example, most homeowners’ policies in Arizona do include coverage for physical damage to structures because dust storms and haboobs are so common.
Personal property or contents inside the home is generally not covered unless the force of winds associated with the haboob cause an opening in a roof or wall allowing the dust or sand to enter the residence. Personal property could be covered if residents have a separate policy that insures just the contents.
Business owners and owners of commercial property should check with their agents or brokers to determine what kind of coverage they have for their property.
Coverage for damage to motor vehicles should be similar to damage from hail or other types of weather, but this too varies by location and policy.
Christine G. Barlow, CPCU is managing editor with FC&S, a resource for insurance coverage analysis. She may be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org. Rosalie L. Donlon is managing editor of National Underwriter Property & Casualty. She may be reached at email@example.com.