Hindering Haboobs

Deadly dust storms along Interstate 10 aren't stoppable—but they may be mitigated

Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix is dangerous enough, with long stretches of nothing to look at, high speeds that just don't seem fast enough, and drivers seemingly on autopilot.

Add in strong winds and blowing dust, and it can become deadly, as was proven twice on Interstate 10 near Picacho Peak this summer.

An infant girl burned to death inside one of the 10 vehicles involved in a wreck on Aug. 25, while a man from Texas died in a 30-vehicle pileup in the same area on Oct. 4. Both crashes were directly tied to massive dust storms—aka haboobs.

Such storms are a fact of life in hot, dry climates. While it's virtually impossible to stop the wind, local and state officials are hoping there are ways to cut down on some of the many other contributing factors associated with dust storms.

"Ultimately, this is an act of nature ... that can be difficult to control or anticipate," said Dustin Krugel, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation. "There are no feasible engineering solutions that ADOT could install to stop dust from crossing I-10 in that region."

Heather Murphy, a spokeswoman for Pinal County's Board of Supervisors, quipped that the problem could be solved by building a tunnel from Tucson to Phoenix. Speaking more seriously, she said figuring out how to mitigate dust-storm dangers is a top priority for her county's leaders.

She said Board of Supervisors chairman Pete Rios plans to write a letter to Gov. Jan Brewer, asking her to convene a blue-ribbon panel of stakeholders with interests along I-10 and Interstate 8. The goal would be to see what, if anything, can be done.

"After the last accident, our air-quality department went out there to see if there was anything else that contributed to the crash beyond blowing dust," Murphy said. "Having two major interstates is a tremendous economic benefit for Pinal County, but it also has its problems."

One problem along I-10 is the vast amount of disturbed soil, from road construction; from recently planted or harvested farmland; and from vacant lots that were bladed for development but have been left untended since the state's economy tanked.

"Natural desert does blow, but not as much as disturbed soil," said Eric Massey, the air-quality director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). "It can certainly have an impact on some of the dust issues."

Pinal County is on the cusp of being declared a "nonattainment area" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Massey said. This means the region has consistently failed to meet federal air-quality standards, particularly with particulate matter smaller than 10 microns (PM10).

Much of Maricopa County, including Phoenix, has been a nonattainment area since 1996. Over the last 15 years, ADEQ has implemented guidelines for improving air quality, including rules regarding watering vacant lots and other tactics for cutting down on dust. Massey said that once Pinal becomes a nonattainment area, the same guidelines will likely be put in place.

Landowners in nonattainment areas are usually willing to work to fix the problem, especially farmers, said Jim Walworth, a soil-science professor at the University of Arizona.

"Farmers are definitely cognizant of the issue," he said. "They don't want to cause dust, because they're losing soil when that happens. In my opinion, we're not going to stop the dust. We can mitigate it."

One way ADEQ has tried to reduce dust-storm-caused crashes is through forecasting. On-staff meteorologists work to predict when such storms are likely, and then issue a "dust-action forecast," Massey said. That data can then be passed on to ADOT to warn motorists of possible poor driving conditions.

"I can't imagine a bigger road-condition situation," Massey said.

Krugel said ADOT has been testing a dust-storm-warning system on a 20-mile stretch of I-10 near the Arizona-New Mexico border. The system—which includes weather-monitoring stations, closed-circuit cameras and warning signs with flashing lights—went online in August, Krugel said.

"ADOT will study the system's results over the next few years to determine its effectiveness," Krugel said. "Obviously, one of the key results will be whether crashes due to dust storms are reduced."

Only so much can be invested in forecasting and other preventative measures. The rest of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of drivers, experts say.

Murphy, the Pinal County spokeswoman, said that with coast-to-coast highways such as I-10 and I-8, you have a lot of people "just passing through, and they may not be attune to the dangers of dust storms. It's not like fog, rain or snow, where you can see those coming up ahead, and you adjust accordingly. I don't think motorists behave the same way with dust storms."

Nate Dewitt can attest to that. The 24-year-old bartender from Tucson was headed north on I-10 en route to a weekend in Laughlin, Nev., on Aug. 25 when he happened upon the series of dust storms near Picacho Peak. The first few were easy enough to manage, he said, but the third dust cloud had additional dangers lurking within.

"I was cruising in the fast lane at about 50 (mph), and all of a sudden, there was a car parked in front of me, and I was, like, 10 feet from it," Dewitt said.

Dewitt ended up rear-ending the other vehicle, totaling his car and leaving him with a $300 citation. He said now that he's been in a dust-storm crash, he'll almost always pull off the road when the air starts to look dirty. He hopes others will follow suit.

"I think 60 or 70 percent of drivers think they can handle it, no problem," he said. "But there's maybe 10 percent that freak out and slam on their brakes, and that's where the problem is."