John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
"Stop with the driving / already. It's a freaking / mile-high cloud of dust."
Today marks the beginning of the Southwest's monsoon season, a climatological event that sees a heavy tonnage of water wafting into the state from the gulfs of California and Mexico. The result: cracking thunderstorms, windshield-breaking hail, flash floods and these lung-pummeling things called "haboobs."
Arabic for "violent storm," haboobs are vast dust storms that can stretch nearly a mile high and move at speeds of 40 m.p.h. or greater. They approach on the leading edge of a thunderstorm, fueled by the low-pressure system's downburst winds. Massive haboobs typically sweep over Phoenix one to three times each year, and when they do they can ground flights and cut the power in a matter of sun-erasing minutes. There's a reason why the Maricopa Indians might've referred to them as mpothsh mshidevk vidiik, or "Look out, the scary dust is coming!"
Arizona's Department of Transportation would prefer you not steer your vehicle into such dust storms. The results of blind driving at high speeds can be frightful, as the video above illustrates. So to promote the message of "Please don't commit vehicular suicide," the agency has started a PR campaign in coordination with the National Weather Service in Phoenix called "Pull Aside – Stay Alive," urging drivers in haboobs to park their vehicles off the road with the lights killed, including even the emergency blinkers. Why lights off? Because in the past, following drivers have mistaken parked cars for moving ones and crashed into them. In a dust storm, it is better to be invisible.
To get the word out about this safety campaign, the DOT has turned to an unusual medium: haiku. It has put out a call for Arizona residents to air their haboob-based poetry via Twitter, and have received dozens of entries. Here are some of the better ones I've seen on Twitter and the agency's Facebook page:
"Stop with the driving / already. It's a freaking / mile-high cloud of dust" @sgv
"You're not a Jedi / This is not Tatooine, Luke / Pull over now, man" @will_watson
"An ominous sight / The mighty dirt monster nears / Pool owners fear him"
"Dust storms are deadly / Pull over, turn off lights, wait / As earth becomes sky" @tmichaels1
"Stop, pull over, dear / The winds may take you away / Then I would die too" @nojail4you
"Billowing dark cloud / Seeping in every window / Get your dustrag out" @calavacita
"Clear clear clear clear DUST / DUST DARK DUST DARK Dust dust clear / Beware the haboob" @sgv
"Haboob flood of dust / Don't drive in all that stuff / It goes soon enough" @JNewmanNYCRT, who must pronounce "don't using two syllables
"Sand flies left and right / Changing the day, stealing light / Like sideways cyclone," author unknown
"Give back my haboob / And to hell with cold and frost / I misplaced my pants" James Padilla