With the monsoons’ beginning, Tucson should be expecting many much-needed rainy days in its future. However, monsoon season brings with it a whole list of safety hazards, some that are obvious and some that aren’t.
To prepare for the desert’s coming rainy months, the Daily Wildcat spoke with KGUN 9 weather anchor Cuyler Diggs for more details on monsoon season and how to stay safe throughout it.
Daily Wildcat: When does monsoon season usually start in Tucson?
Cuyler Diggs: A few years ago we changed the system where it used to be a measure of a 54 degree dew point for three days in a row and then monsoons started, but for keeping records and everything, we found that it was just a better idea to switch to a calendar start and stop date. So on the calendar it starts June 15 and ends September 30. Now, that’s the calendar. In reality, the monsoon usually kicks into gear around Tucson and Southeastern Arizona around the Fourth of July, but this year it’s obviously gotten off to a slow start … It’ll get into gear here, but I think it’s not really going to really kick into gear this year maybe until August the way it’s looking right now. We’ll have a couple of active days here and there, but nothing real widespread or consistent probably until we get into August.
DW: How do Tucson monsoons differ from rainy seasons elsewhere?
CD: It’s a seasonal shift in wind. So a lot of folks will hear the term monsoon and they’ll think maybe like India or someplace like that, and it’s basically the same thing that’s happening in areas that do get a monsoon around the world, it’s just a seasonal shift in wind. The one here, it’s unique. They’re all unique in their own way. Over the desert, it’s pretty amazing that you can see dewpoints as high as we get – into the 60s and maybe even the 70s sometimes – because everybody thinks of the desert as being this hot, dry place and they’re just always shocked when they come here in July and August and it feels almost like you’re in the Deep South of the United States. That’s probably the most unique thing about our monsoon is that it occurs over a very dry desert region, and obviously with that we can get some pretty heavy thunderstorms and flooding and gusty winds and dust storms and all that kind of stuff. That’s probably something they don’t see too much of in India where they see a monsoon as well. They don’t have the desert and the dust issues that we do here.
DW: Can you explain some safety hazards that come with monsoon season?
CD: Our biggest threat that we see are dust storms and flash flooding, and of course we’ve got lightning in there as well. But our biggest threats are the dust storms that get kicked up by these thunderstorms. So you get the thunderstorm that develops and it displaces a lot of air. That air needs to move somewhere, and we call that outflow from the thunderstorm. That outflow goes along the ground and it’ll kick up anything in its path including the dust, and obviously dust is very easy to be picked up by the wind, so you get these blinding dust storms that unfortunately cause real problems on our highways around the region and it can even disrupt air travel.
And then we have flash flooding, and the flash flooding is a real issue. We hear about these unfortunate incidents every year where we’ve got a swift water rescue, and sometimes there’s a good ending to the story and sometimes there’s not, and that’s why we just continue to hammer on that: Don’t drive through flooded washes because it only takes about six to eight inches of rushing water to carry you away and even move a vehicle.
DW: How can people protect themselves from these safety hazards?
CD: The best thing during a severe thunderstorm or a strong thunderstorm that’s producing these gusty winds and heavy rain and even hail and lightning is … to stay inside. And obviously that doesn’t work too well for working people or students at a college campus or a high school campus. So if you’re in that situation, try to stay inside those areas, just wait to go home until that storm has passed. You usually really only have to wait about 20 or 30 minutes. If you’re caught driving in the storm, just remember: “Turn Around Don’t Drown.” We can’t say it enough. If you come upon a place in the road where there’s water that’s running across that road, even if it looks safe to cross, don’t do it, because you never know, that road may have washed out underneath that water. And then you end up with a real problem trying to go through there, and all of a sudden, your car sinks or you get stuck in there.
As far as the gusty outflow wind, well, if you’re stuck out in that, just find a place of shelter if you can. The same goes for lighting. One of our other little catchphrases is “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors,” and that’s absolutely true. You don’t want to mess around with lightning bolts, not something that can reach about 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’ll kind of ruin your whole day.
DW: What are the dangers of flash floods?
CD: Well, they happen so quickly. And the thing that catches a lot of people off guard is that – a thunderstorm happens over the mountains, and they’re very likely to happen over the higher terrain first. Well, here you are down in the city or maybe you’re out in the desert, and you see that thunderstorm off in the distance, it’s dumping some pretty good rain in the hills, and you’re thinking, “Eh, we’re fine.” Well, just remember, that water has to go somewhere, and it’s going to go downhill and follow those washes. So even several miles away from that thunderstorm, give it enough time, if it’s dumping enough rain, that water will come down those washes, and it might take a half an hour to and hour to reach where you’re at. But, sure enough, all of the sudden, you look up and here’s this rushing water coming down the wash … You got to pay attention to these days where we have thunderstorms in the forecast, if you’re planning on hiking or going to these swimming holes or whatever, just make sure you’re aware of your surroundings, and that includes watching the skies.
DW: How should people prepare for the upcoming monsoon season?
CD: Just make sure that you’re educated. We try to help people do that. Tune in to your local media. Try – especially if you’re new to the area – try to learn a little bit about what the monsoon is and what it can bring. And, as far as physical preparation, make sure you’ve got things locked down. If you’ve got patio furniture or a trampoline out there or something like that, make sure it’s secured, because these winds can pick up a trampoline and carry it a block away … But education is the biggest preparation … If people are just aware of the dangers, then they’re more likely to avoid those dangers.
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