Saturday, August 18, 2012


Every summer residents of the Valley experience a signature feature of life in the desert in the form of massive dust storms.  For those who don’t live here, you might have seen video of them on the national news.  Those giant brown clouds you’ve seen consuming an entire metropolitan area of four million people?  That’s us.  For some reason, we’ve had a few doozies in the last year or so that have even made the old-old-timers sit up and say, “Now that one there reminds me of Oklahoma.  1932, I think it was, or was it ’33?  Either way, it was that one where we lost half our roof, Davy Crockett our Basset hound, and our front yard.” 

So where do these enormous rolling walls of dirt and sand come from?  Well, I’m no scientist, but being a child of the 70’s, I like to use the analogy of thermonuclear war whenever I can.   You know how, when an atomic bomb goes off, it makes a mushroom cloud in the sky?  Well, imagine a reverse atomic bomb, one that starts in the sky and goes down.  A dust storm is basically a mushroom cloud created by a 10 megaton thunderstorm after it collapses out in the desert.  The nice part is, instead of radiation poisoning, we just get Valley Fever. 

Until recently, these living signs of the biblical apocalypse never really had a name of their own. We just called them dust storms; and frankly, that term just doesn’t capture the peculiar grandeur and immensity of a good, 500-foot high, solid wall of blowing dirt and sand.   Other flexings of nature’s prodigious muscles, such as hurricanes and tornados, have been assigned names that seem to epitomize their strength and terrible power.   A dust storm just kind of sounds like something that happens when your grandmother cleans.  It makes it kind of hard to be taken seriously by someone from Kansas, let’s say, when you attempt to communicate the ferocity of a dust storm. 

Arizonan:  Man, you should have seen the dust storm I got caught in on my way home the other day!  It was unbelievable.  It was like driving into a wall.  Couldn’t see a thing…     

Kansan:  Sounds scary.  Did this ‘dust storm’ pick your car up in the air, twirl it around like a hyperactive schoolgirl’s baton, and then drop you upside-down in an oak tree three miles away?

Arizonan:  Well, no.  But I had to pull over and wait for it to stop.

Kansan:  And you lived to tell about it?  Amazing.

Alright, so dust storms aren’t the most devastating natural disasters since Katrina.  But they are more impressive than the name indicates.  And let’s face it, here in our locale, the monsoon is the only weather we have all year.  I say it’s only natural that we get disproportionately worked up over it.  I mean, where else in this great land of ours do you have news crews dispatching like emergency responders whenever they hear that a drop of moisture has touched the ground somewhere in the Valley?  And then it’s always a let down when they break into regular programming to report that it turned out to just be someone’s broken sprinkler head. 

Do you know anyone else who has a weather statistic for ‘measurable virga?’  Didn’t think so.

At any rate, a crack band of local meteorologists got together a few years ago and decided to rebrand the dust storm by giving it a new name.  Now, when I say ‘crack band of local meteorologists,’ you must understand that I am using this term loosely.  After all, I did already mention the fact that we only get three months of weather every year, didn’t I?  Out of a possible twelve?  It’s not the kind of year-to-weather ratio likely to attract the keenest and most serious-minded members of their field.  Unless they golf, of course.

Oh, dust storms, we hardly knew ye...
Anyway, these folks got together and gave the dust storm an extreme verbal makeover.  They decided that the rolling brown mushroom clouds of dirt and sand should be called by their traditional Middle Eastern name, the haboob.  After all, they must have reasoned, the people of the Arabian desert have been dealing with these things for millennia, and if they don’t have a problem with the name, why would anybody else?

But to paraphrase the famous words of Jay Leno to Hugh Grant:  What were they thinking?  Do they not know where they are?  Do they not realize that we live in a state that is somewhat, oh, I don’t know, obsessed with foreigners and all things foreign?  I mean, this is a state where a substantial number of people want to see the words ‘e pluribus unum’ removed from our paper currency because it sounds too much like Spanish. 

Don’t any of them remember the trouble we had with the term ‘monsoon’ a while back?  Sure, we had been using it for many years (certainly since my arrival in the state in 1979), but after 9/11, it suddenly became an object of great suspicion.  People began to clamor:  “Hey, why do we call this thing a monsoon anyway?”  “Yeah, sounds strange, and vaguely threatening.”  “I know I didn’t vote for it.”  “Why can’t we have an Amuhrican name for our rainy season?”

As I remember it, this went on for quite awhile, until calmer heads prevailed and someone pointed out that the term monsoon actually originated in India, not the Middle East.  Still, many thought even that was a little closer geographically than was absolutely necessary, and replacement terms were proposed.  ‘Freedom season’ comes to mind, although that was supported most fervently by the folks out at the Shangri-La clothing-optional resort north of town.  It finally came down to monsoon vs. the next-nearest competitor, ‘Sweat-Soaked Butt Cheek season.’ In a triumph of simplicity over excess verbiage, monsoon was the one that stuck in the end (ironically, much as sweat-soaked butt cheeks tend to do).    

And even if you find a way around the problem of the word’s ethnicity, there’s another obvious problem.  I don’t understand how those meteorologists could not have realized that it’s impossible in our culture to hear the word ‘haboob’ (plural form, haboobs), and not immediately think of a particular restaurant chain.   Over the last few years that this term has begun to circulate, I can’t tell you how many times in my travels I’ve overheard people say something like, “Have you been to the Hooter’s in Phoenix?  I hear they have the most awesome haboobs there.”

Even aside from all the controversy, I have to say I’m not a huge fan of the word haboob.  Mostly because it’s a really hard word to say and keep a straight face.  I’ve been practicing, and it’s taken me about 80 attempts so far today.  I even smirk when I write the word ‘haboob.’ (Smirk) See?  I was hoping for a term that would lend some deserving gravitas to this impressive desert phenomenon.

Iconic Camelback Mountain, about to get haboobed.
Still, there is one thing I like about the word.  It can easily be converted into a verb, and that’s something that was missing before.  In the past, you could never really say, “It dust stormed last night,” because that just sounded lame.  But now you can walk into the office and say to your cubicle mate, “Hey, did you get haboobed last night?  We did too.  Oh, we got haboobed bad.”  Then you high-five, and everybody feels good.  Or you can walk out of the movie theater, see the layer of dust embedded in your car’s finish and say, “Oh, no!  It haboobed all over my ride!  And I just had it detailed!” Or you can step outside in the morning, see the neighbor’s dried palm tree fronds strewn all over your yard, raise your fist to the heavens and shout, “Haboobed again!” 

If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should; it’s very therapeutic.

People enjoying a good haboob...
So, on the whole, I guess I have mixed emotions over the term.  Somehow, I don’t think this new word is going to do much to improve our credibility with my friends from Kansas; but on the other hand, you can’t deny it is a fun word to say.  I suppose for now it will just have to do. 

Maybe someday, the haboobs in the weather department will come up with something better.    
What are these women doing?
Haboobing, of course.

The sign of the times

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