By MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/Web editor of Risk & Insurance®
It came into Phoenix, Ariz., looking like the edge of a nuclear blast. It was at its peak 6,000 feet high, nearly 100 miles long, according to AccuWeather. It was the haboob, or "violent dust storm" in Arabic. Although it didn't pack anywhere near the punch of an atomic explosion, the haboob caused a severe interruption for businesses and citizens in Phoenix when it struck on the evening of July 5.
The Phoenix Airport was forced to shut down. Also, typically with such large storms and smaller dust-ups, said William Sprigg, research professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona, highways must be closed as well. He estimated that as many as five to six motorists lose their lives during dust storms each year.
As far as property damage from the event, one wonders. This particular haboob began during a thunderstorm in Tuscon, Ariz., which generated wind gusts of 70 mph. Such near-hurricane-strength gusts were then felt hours later during the actual dust storm in Phoenix.
According to the Property Claims Services (PCS) unit at ISO, the organization that tracks such stats, the July haboob at the moment doesn't warrant a catastrophe serial number, meaning it doesn't reach an direct insured loss threshold of $25 million for the event. In fact, property damage from the storm appears light.
"Also, at this point, there are not many reports from insurers of claims from this event, and PCS does not expect many," ISO wrote us in an email.
Perhaps the biggest impact the dust storm could have on businesses is if it makes their employees ill and puts them out on sick leave or short-term disability. Cases of Valley Fever could triple over the coming couple months, local news outlets are reporting. Caused by a fungus that travels in the wind-flung dust, Valley Fever can cause pneumonia-like symptoms in otherwise healthy people, Sprigg explained. In the young, elderly or people with compromised immune systems, it could become more threatening.
Even without airborne fungus, these dust clouds can pose obvious health hazards to individuals with cardiovascular disease or asthma, Sprigg said.
That Phoenix was able to shake off a dust storm of this magnitude might surprise the rest of the country. Anecdotal reports coming out of Arizona news reports quote "old-timers" saying they've never seen anything like it. Sprigg called the storm "unusually big."
"It was a big one ... but there have been big ones before," Sprigg added.
Haboobs are periodic events in the Southwest, affecting the Phoenix area perhaps once or twice every year, the professor said. They come during the monsoon season when the winds change and moisture is brought up from the Gulf of Mexico and Baja California. This moisture, Sprigg said, allows big thunderstorms and squall lines to develop. Luckily, because of the rain, moist dust and dirt doesn't get kicked up every time a storm comes through.
"Throughout the year, thank goodness there aren't a lot of these storms," he said.
With this most recent haboob, however, the Phoenix area has been in a drought for some time.
That leads us to the obvious question: Will climate change, with its threats of higher temperatures and deeper, longer droughts for the Southwest, lead to worse haboobs? Is it already?
"You've asked the question that we're asking ourselves, and we just don't have a good answer at this point," Sprigg said.
The professor, who also teaches at Chapman University in California, added that he and others are currently researching the storms using NASA satellites. Progress has been made to the point that they can model and predict haboobs.
They weren't able to forecast Phoenix's most recent haboob, Sprigg said, but they were able to foresee a dust-up this past spring caused by a storm that also caused tornadoes in the east and fanned wildfires in the Southwest.
July 12, 2011
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