Dust storms may seem like an unlikely, even crazy topic to discuss outside of the Arabian desert. I assure you it is not. Many have moved to states where dust storms occur frequently, and newcomers may not be aware of the danger or how to plan for and cope with them. If you will be traveling thru or live in the dessert of southern California, Nevada, Arizona, Southern Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, or any dry area or during a tornado —threat be aware—a dust storm may occur.
I joined Margie, my friend, and her parents on a road trip to Texas during my senior year in high school. We encountered a dust storm, and in all the years since I have never been so frightened by any weather-related emergency.
Being from New Jersey we were very naive and had no idea what was coming toward us. It is no exaggeration to say that when it hit us, we could not see two inches in front of the windshield—no less the front of the car. Margie’s dad was a police officer and accustomed to emergencies, but this was a new one. Should we keep going? Should we pull off? If we pulled off the side of the road, we were afraid to go too far because we didn’t know what was there. But then, if we didn’t go far enough, we would be hit by traffic. We finally pulled off and sat huddled in the car – desperately trying to see anything besides dust – and we prayed. When the storm suddenly cleared – as suddenly as its arrival – we were only a few feet behind another car which had also pulled off. We were lucky.
Dust storms are among nature’s most violent and unpredictable phenomena, and they don’t just happen in the desert or on foreign continents. They happen in any dry region where loose dirt can easily be picked up. Particles of sand tossed into the air by high winds usually fall back down to the ground after a few hours. Smaller particles may remain in the air for a week or longer and can be blown thousands of miles away. A few years ago dust from a storm in the Gobi Desert region of China settled across Japan.
Storms vary widely in size and duration: most are quite small and last only a few minutes, while the largest can extend hundreds of miles, tower more than a mile into the sky, and last for many days.
The most severe dust storms do not occur in the United States, but they do occur in many areas of the world. Nearly all dust storms are capable of causing property damage and injuries, or death. No matter where you live, it’s a good idea to know what to do if you see a wall of dust and sand racing toward you, especially if you plan to travel through desert or drought-stricken areas, are a backpacker, frequently travel cross-country, or will be traveling internationally. We know people who do reconnaissance in remote areas for power utilities, and others who are scout leaders, pilots, outdoorsmen, truck drivers, military personnel stationed in the Middle East, missionaries overseas, or frequent international business travelers. Sound familiar to people you know?
Dust storms are most likely to occur on hot summer days when very specific weather conditions are in place. Because of this, dust storms can often be predicted. Check before traveling through arid areas by listening to local TV or radio broadcasts. In some areas, especially in the southwestern United States, road signs may also be available to warn you of approaching dust hazards. If you cannot change your travel plans, be sure to be prepared.
- Be prepared for a dust storm:
- Carry a mask designed to filter out small particulates, N 95 medical masks work well.
- Carry airtight goggles to protect your eyes.
- Carry a supply of water as dust storms most often occur during very hot weather conditions. You may quickly become dehydrated by the dry heat and high winds.
- Carry clothing that covers your body, face, and head to protect you. Imagine particles of dust and sand hitting your body at 75 miles per hour or more!
- Get out of there: If you see a dust storm approaching and you are in a vehicle, you may be able to outrun the storm. If the storm is catching up with you, stop and prepare for it. Once the storm reaches you, it will only be a matter of seconds before you will not be able to see anything around you.
- In a car:
- Pull off the road while you can still see, pulling off as far as possible.
- Turn off your car lights, inside and outside. This may seem counter intuitive however at the onset of the storm others may see your lights and follow them assuming you are on the road.
- Set your emergency brake.
- Take your foot off the brake to assure your brake lights are not on.
- Close all windows and doors tightly.
- Close all the air vents to help prevent outside air filled with dust from coming into the car.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a bandana, mask, t-shirt, or other fabric to reduce the amount of dust you breath in. If you moisten the cloth, it will be even more effective and easier to breathe.
- If you are unable to safely pull of the road, keep your headlights and hazard lights on. Continue to drive slowly sounding your horn every minute or so. You can use the highway’s centerline to guide you until you reach a place where it is safe to pull off.
- In a house or sturdy building:
- Get inside as quickly as possible.
- Close all windows, draw draperies, blinds and shut all doors.
- Take shelter in a room without windows. Your windows may be “beautifully” sandblasted after a storm, but they will still be intact. If the winds should pick up a rock, patio furniture or tree limb. your windows could be broken, and you will want to be far away from the shattered glass. This is also the reason to close the blinds and drapes, just in case.
- If you are outside and can’t reach a building:
- Take shelter behind a large rock or other land formation. Do not lie in a ditch, as flashfloods may occur, since thunderstorms often accompany dust storms. However, if you are in an area with small hills, that type of a depression should be fine as a shelter.
- Curl up into a ball and protect your head and face. If possible, cover your head and face with a sweater, coat, or anything else you may have handy. Winds from a dust storm can pick up and propel other objects, so make yourself as small as you can and cover up.
- If you cannot find a large rock and are in a completely open area, lie flat on the ground and protect you head and back with anything you may have. If you are camping or hiking, you should have a backpack, mylar blanket, sleeping bag or other items that would work as shelter.
- If you have a mask, put it on immediately. If you don’t have a mask, lightly moisten a bandana or some other piece of fabric and tie it over your nose and mouth. If you don’t have fabric, pull the front of your shirt up over your nose and mouth to reduce the amount of dust you breathe in.
- Eyeglasses and sunglasses offer minimal protection from blowing dust or sand but are better than nothing. If you have more cloth you will want to cover your eyes. Otherwise, put on any glasses you have, close your eyes tightly and face away from the dust. Airtight goggles are the best protection – swimming goggles work well. NEVER rub your eyes. If they become irritated rinse with water.
- If you are with a group, stick together. A dust storm is similar to a blizzard – you can easily become disoriented and lost. If you are trying to get to a protected area hold hands or lock arms while walking.
- Watch out for related weather dangers: Ideal dust storm conditions are also perfect for thunderstorms and even tornadoes. Lightning and heavy rains often accompany a dust storm. Watch for flash floods – take precautions as you would in any thunderstorm.
- It is sometimes recommended to get to high ground in a dust storm, since the densest concentration of sand is close to the ground. If you can find a safe, solid, high point this may be a good idea, but only if the storm is not accompanied by lightning and only if there is no danger of being struck by heavier flying debris.
- Dust storms are especially dangerous to those with compromised respiratory systems or weakened immune systems. Inhaling even small amounts of dust can cause potentially life-threatening complications.
- Avoid wearing contact lenses in areas prone to dust storms. If you find yourself involved in a dust storm remove your contacts immediately as the small particles in the air can become trapped under lenses, scratching your eye, and potentially causing permanent damage.
- While dust storms are most likely to occur in hot weather, they can form at any time of year, and the frigid winds of a winter dust storm can quickly lead to hypothermia.
- If possible, avoid operating low-flying aircraft during a dust storm or when conditions for dust storm formations are present. This is extremely dangerous as visibility goes to zero in a matter of seconds. Additionally, sand can be sucked into the engine and cause engine failure.
- While a desert climate or drought provides the perfect conditions for dust storm formation, the likelihood of a storm depends on many factors. Recent plowing of farming operations can contribute to the likelihood, as can construction and other man-made changes to the soil conditions.
- In desert areas, vehicles often create their own mini-sandstorms or dust storms. This becomes a problem when several vehicles are traveling or playing together, such as when 4 wheeling. The clouds of dust quickly damage moving parts, and decrease visibility, causing accidents. Respiratory problems can also increase – anyone finding themselves in these circumstances should wear a mask.
- When you travel in dusty areas, even when a dust storm is not occurring, take precautions to protect electronics, cameras, cell phones, laptops, and tools by wrapping them, preferably in plastic.
- If you live in a dry area, pay attention to air quality advisories. When warnings are issued, stay indoors, or wear a mask if you must go outside. Breathing in even small amounts of dust over long periods of time can cause numerous respiratory problems and even death.
Since my experience in a Texas dust storm years ago, I have not seen anything quite like it again, but the memory of it is unforgettable and motivates me to never be unprepared. When driving cross-country, I not only have the emergency kit I always carry in my car but throw in my full-blown five-day kit as well. Being aware of the weather forecast and staying in touch with radio broadcasts in the area I travel through is important – even though local radio may not be as entertaining as a favorite on a lonely stretch of highway. After doing all we can to prepare, we must trust our experience, knowledge, and faith if the unexpected comes our way.
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