How to Survive a Dust Storm
Tips for staying safe in a rolling wall of sand and silt
At the 2000 Burning Man festival, on the playa of Black Rock City, Nevada, I had the chance to step out into a dust storm. I was wearing goggles and was sure that I could duck back into our dome and not get blown away or buried alive. It was exhilarating.
However, after talking with safety experts about dust storms, I'll probably enjoy my next one from behind a tightly closed window.
Dust storms, known as haboobs, have become more frequent over the past few decades in the Southwest, pummeling motorists and people on foot with rolling walls of dust.
As explained by Bob Henson, a science blogger at the website Weather Underground and the author of five books on weather and climate change, a dust storm can kick up anywhere strong winds blow over parched ground. Some cover only a few acres, while others can last for hours and cover areas larger than a state. In the 1930s, huge dust storms blew all the way from the Great Plains to the East Coast, causing coughing spasms, shortness of breath, asthma, bronchitis, flu and dust-related pneumonia among people unlucky enough to be caught in them.
Things quieted down after that. But in 2013 scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder and elsewhere found the West had gotten increasingly dusty during the previous 17 years, causing an increase in dust storms — including one that caused a white-out and a 29-car pile-up in Nevada and another in Phoenix that dumped 40,000 tons of dust and sand. A 200-feet high haboob in Phoenix in June 2015 was followed by a rainstorm that felled power lines and trees and left thousands of people without power.
The best way to stay safe during a dust storm is to stay inside. If there's a dust storm warning on the radio or TV, seal doors and windows as best you can. "If dust gets inside anyway, try to minimize the amount of dust you breathe in,” says Henson. “The tiniest dust particles tend to make their way furthest into the lungs.”
Related: How to Survive a Tornado
If you're outside on foot
Get out of the road. Henson says if you see a cloud of dust on the horizon, “stay as far away from highways as possible, where motorists may be disoriented. If winds are extremely strong, seek shelter in a building or get as low to the ground as you can.”
Avoid ditches, dry riverbeds and gulleys. Since approaching thunderstorms often trigger dust storms, you could find yourself dealing with a flash flood once the dust storm has passed.
Protect your face. If you have goggles, wear them. If you have a hat with a brim, pull it down over your eyes and nose. And if you happen to have a canteen or water bottle, douse a bandana or other piece of clothing and tie it over your mouth and nose to keep from inhaling sand and dust.
Coat the inside of your nose with Vaseline if you happen to have some. It will help trap dust before it can get into your lungs. Blow or clean your nose if dust gets in anyway and reapply.
Cover any exposed skin to prevent it from being painfully scraped and “sanded” during the storm.
If you're in a car
Pull off the road. Drive as far off the road as you can, turn off your lights (so other cars won't see them, think you're a moving vehicle and plow into you). Engage your emergency brake and keep your foot off the brake pedal so the brake lights don't come on.
If there’s nowhere to pull over, drive at a speed suitable for visibility, turn on your lights and beep the horn now and then, say experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Follow the painted center line as a guide. Pull off the road at the first opportunity.
Most dust storms pass in less than 30 minutes, Henson says, so you almost certainly won’t be buried alive like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Just stay calm and wait for the dust to settle.