Severe Weather Preparedness Week- Dust Storms

Severe Weather Awareness Week

March 3-9


With high winds yesterday throughout our area and still drought conditions make it ideal for blowing sand and dirt. The visibility is also drastically reduced with the blowing dust. Sand Storms are among nature’s most violent and unpredictable phenomena. High winds lift dirt particles or, in the case of sandstorms, sand, into the air, unleashing a turbulent, suffocating cloud of particulates and reducing visibility to almost nothing in a matter of seconds. Nearly all dust storms are capable of causing property damage, injuries, and deaths, and while they are most commonly associated with the Sahara and Gobi desert regions, they can occur in any arid or semi-arid climate. No matter where you live, it’s a good idea to know what to do if you see a wall of sand racing toward you.

Dust storms often occur with strong outflow from thunderstorms. The strong outflow is produced when a thunderstorm downburst, which occurs when the core of a thunderstorm collapses, suddenly forces air and water toward the ground. The fast-moving air has nowhere to go, but spread out in all directions.


A dust storm usually arrives suddenly in the form of an advancing wall of dust and debris which may be miles long and several thousand feet high. They strike with little warning, making driving conditions hazardous. Blinding, choking dust can quickly reduce visibility, causing accidents that may involve chain collisions, creating massive pileups. Dust storms usually last only a few minutes, but the actions a motorist takes during the storm may be the most important of his or her life.


  • 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.


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 of your lights are off when you park off the roadway.


During threatening weather listen to commercial radio or television or NOAA Weather Radio for Dust Storm Warnings. A Dust Storm (or Sand Storm) Warning means: Visibility of 1/2 mile or less due to blowing dust or sand, and wind speeds of 30 miles an hour or more.

Heed dust storm warnings. Dust storms are most likely to occur on hot summer days under certain atmospheric conditions, so meteorologists can frequently predict the possibility of these storms. Tune in to local TV or radio broadcasts before traveling in hot, dry conditions, and consider rerouting or delaying your trip if dust storms are predicted. Roadside signs may also be available to warn you of dust storm danger.

Be prepared. If you are in a storm-prone area, carry a mask designed to filter out small particulates, and bring airtight goggles to protect your eyes. It’s also wise to carry a supply of water in case you are stuck in a storm. Dust storms are usually accompanied by high temperatures, and you can quickly become dehydrated in the dry heat and high winds. Wear or carry clothing that covers your body to protect you from the sandblasting, and to keep you warm in case of the frigid winds of a winter dust storm, which can quickly lead to hypothermia.

Outrun the storm. If you see a dust storm from some distance, and you are in a vehicle or have access to one, you may be able to outrun it or detour around it. Some dust storms can travel at more than 75 miles per hour, but they frequently travel much slower. Trying to outrun a storm, however, is not advisable if you have to put yourself at risk by traveling at high speeds. If the storm is catching up with you, it’s best to stop and prepare for it. Once consumed by the storm, your visibility can potentially be reduced to zero in a matter of seconds.

Pull over. If you’re in transit and visibility drops to less than 300 feet, pull off the road (exit the freeway if possible), set your parking brake, turn off your headlights, and make sure brake lights and turn signals are also off. In many cases, if your exterior lights are on, other drivers will use the taillights of the person in front of them as a guide to help navigate the road ahead of them. If you are pulled off the road and are sitting there with your lights on, unbelievably, someone might think they can follow you and run right off the road or even collide with you! Turning your headlights off while stationed off the road, will reduce the possibility of a rear-end collision. If you are unable to safely pull off the road, keep your headlights on, turn on your hazard lights, slow down, and proceed with caution, sounding your horn periodically. Use the highway’s centerline to guide you if you can’t see in front of you. Pull over at the nearest safe spot.

Take cover and stay put. Do not attempt to move about in a blinding storm, as you will not be able to see potential hazards in your path.

If you’re in a house or sturdy structure, stay inside. If you can quickly reach such shelter before a dust storm reaches you, get there as quickly as possible. Close all windows and doors, and wait out the storm.

If you’re in a vehicle, roll up the windows and turn off vents that bring outside air in.

If you are stuck outside, seek out a large rock or other landform to protect you at least partially.

Get to high ground, since the densest concentration of sand is bouncing close to the ground, but only if (1) you can find a safe, solid, high point, (2) the storm is not accompanied by lightning and (3) there is no danger of being struck by heavier flying debris.

Do not lie in a ditch, as flash flooding may occur even if no rain is falling where you are. In the actual dust cloud, rain generally dries up before it reaches the ground, but it may be raining nearby, and ditches, arroyos, and other low-lying areas can quickly flood.

If you have a camel, have it sit down and press yourself against its leeward side. Camels are well adapted to surviving in dust storms.

If you’re in sand dunes, do not seek shelter right on the leeward side of the dune. The high winds can pick up huge amounts of sand very quickly, and you could find yourself being buried in sand.

Wear a mask. If you have a respirator or mask designed to filter out small particulates, put it on immediately. If you don’t have a mask, wrap a bandanna or some other piece of cloth around your nose and mouth. Moisten it a bit if you have enough water. Apply a small amount of petroleum jelly to the inside of your nostrils to prevent drying of your mucous membranes.

Protect your eyes. Eyeglasses offer minimal protection from blowing dust or sand, but airtight goggles are better. If you don’t have goggles, wrap a piece of cloth tightly around your head to protect your eyes and ears.

Shield yourself from flying objects. Cover as much of your body as possible to protect yourself from flying sand. In addition, while wind-propelled sand can hurt, a dust storm’s high winds can also carry heavier (and hence more dangerous) objects. If you find yourself without shelter, try to stay low to the ground and protect your head with your arms, a backpack, or a pillow.

Safety Tips: Driving In A Dust Storm

Dust storms are common in our area and usually occur between May and September. The most intense storms occur during the late summer months known as monsoon.

Dust storms can create dangerous, sometimes even deadly driving conditions and sometimes reduce visibility to zero. The area between Tucson and Phoenix is noted for being the only place in the United States to experience the “haboob,” a raging dust storm that travels across the desert at 50 to 60 mph.

AAA says drivers need to be especially careful when they get behind the wheel of a car and practice safe driving habits so they don’t find themselves “at one” with a large tree or worse, another vehicle.

If you run into a severe dust storm, reduce the speed of your vehicle immediately and drive carefully off the highway. After you are off the paved portion of the roadway, turn off your vehicle’s lights to ensure other cars do not follow you off the road and hit your vehicle. Wait until the dust storm had passed before getting back on the highway. If you are walking or riding your bike, get inside quickly or seek shelter.

If a dust storm strikes, use the same rules you would for driving in fog. Do not stop on the road, because cars coming behind you will not see you in time to stop. Instead, slow down and pull to the side of the road, turn off all lights and wait until it’s safe to resume driving. If traffic prevents you from pulling off the road, look down at the white lines on the pavement to keep the car pointing in the right direction, and drive very slowly, until the dust passes, which should only take a few minutes

Here are some other tips to help drivers safely maneuver through the Valley during a monsoon storm:

· Reduce speed and turn on driving lights

· Pull off the roadway

After you are completely off the traveled portion of the roadway:

· Turn off driving lights

· Keep your car radio on

· If you are on the freeway, leave the freeway at an exit ramp, if possible.

· Wait until visibility is at least 300 feet before re-entering the roadway.

· Heavy rain may follow the dust storm.


Ken Oswald Safety and Security Manager for Plateau