Massive dust storm sweeps Arizona, turns day to night

Jul 7, 2011

Arizonans are calling it the mother
of all haboobs - a mile-high wall of ominous,
billowing dust that appeared to swallow
Phoenix and its suburbs.
The massive dust storm also called a
"haboob" in Arabic and around Arizona, is
all locals could talk about Wednesday. It
moved through the state around sundown
Tuesday, halting airline flights, knocking out
power to nearly 10,000 people, turning
swimming pools into mud pits and caking
cars with dirt.
The sky was still filled with a hazy shade of
brown a day later as residents washed their
cars and swept sidewalks.
Because haboobs are so hard to predict,
Tuesday's took everyone by surprise.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the 100-mile-
wide storm moved like a giant wave, the
dust roiling as it approached at up to 60
mph. Once it hit, visibility dropped to zero in
some areas, the sky turned nearly black,
trees blew sideways, and even downtown
Phoenix skyscrapers became invisible.
"Just the height of it looked like a special-
effect scene from a movie, like a dust storm
out in Africa," said Charlotte Dewey, a
National Weather Service meteorologist in
Phoenix. "It looked so huge, looking at the
city down below, it was just specks of light
and miniature buildings.
"I have a feeling that people will be talking
about this for another week or two, at
least," Dewey said.
She said meteorologists were still trying to
get exact measures from satellite and radar
to figure out how big the dust storm was
and compare it with previous ones, but they
estimate it was more than a mile high and
more than 100 miles wide.
"People who've lived here their whole lives,
30 or 40 years, are saying they've never
seen a storm this large," Dewey said.
She said winds from separate
thunderstorms in the eastern and southern
parts of the state collided somewhere
between Phoenix and Tucson and combined
with a severe lack of moisture to create the
wall of dust. The storm also hit the Yuma
area in south-western Arizona, and far
western Arizona.
Haboobs only happen in Arizona, the Sahara
desert and parts of the Middle East because
of dry conditions and large amounts of
sand, Dewey said.
"It's a pretty rare thing to be able to see,"
she said.
While some Arizonans revel in the strange
weather, many were unlucky enough to be
outside when the storm rolled in. They got
blasted with dust that went up their noses,
behind their contact lenses and in their
mouths, leaving behind a gritty taste.
Holly Ward, a spokeswoman at the Maricopa
County Air Quality Department, said pollution
levels skyrocketed. Particulate matter at one
monitoring site hit an hourly average of
more than 5,000 micrograms per cubic
meter. Tuesday's 24-hour average was as
high as 375 micrograms per cubic meter,
more than double the level federal standards
consider healthy.
"You didn't have to go far anywhere in the
dust storm to feel the remnants of that dust
in your throat and in your nose," Ward said.
"If someone already has breathing problems
like asthma and bronchitis, this is an
incredible health challenge and serious
health threat for those folks."
Local hospitals were expecting an increase
in a disease known as Valley Fever, a fungal
pneumonia, because of the storm. The
fungus thrives in the hot and arid
Southwest and is found just a few feet
beneath the earth's surface; it can be stirred
up by construction, wind and other activity.
The dust storm also grounded flights at
Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport
for 45 minutes. At least three flights were
cancelled and more than a dozen were
delayed, while several incoming flights were
diverted to Tucson and Ontario, Calif., said
airport spokesman Julie Rodriguez.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman
Lynn Lunsford said planes need to be
grounded during dust storms because of
the low visibility, high winds and potential
damage from the dirt.
"If you think about it, glass is made from
sand that has been melted, and if you think
about the temperature inside a jet engine,
it's hot enough to melt sand," he said. "If
you can't see through it, you definitely don't
want to fly through it."
He likened the storm to volcanic ash that
wreaked havoc in the skies in April 2010,
when an eruption grounded flights across
Europe for days, disrupting travel for 10
million people.
Arizona's dust storm annoyed others who
couldn't see out of their car windows or
found their pools filthy in the morning. But
that created pay dirt at local businesses.
"It's crazy here," said Margaret Viloria,
manager of Los Olivos Hand Car Wash near
downtown Phoenix. "When we opened this
morning cars were lined up outside. It's just
been nonstop."
On a typical day, the car wash cleans about
25 to 30 cars an hour. It was averaging 55
an hour Wednesday, Viloria said.
Joe Pinelli, owner of The Pool Service in
Phoenix, was also having an "absolutely
chaotic" day.
"I don't think I've been off the phone since
about 6 a.m.," he said.
Dewey, the weather service meteorologist,
said there was a slight chance of blowing
dust in the Phoenix area Wednesday and
Thursday and a slight chance of
thunderstorms the rest of the week.
"As far as if it would be of any magnitude
we saw Tuesday, I don't know," she said.