At 6:21 p.m., the Weather Service upgraded to a rare dust storm warning, the first their office has issued since 2014. Their advice to motorists was simple: “Pull aside, stay alive.”
Haboobs form when cool, dense air exiting a thunderstorm passes over a dry landscape. The sudden rush of wind stirs up a wall of dust at that times can be more than a mile tall. It turns day into night, a nocturnal brown hue descending like a massive blanket pulled overhead.
I found myself face to face with the haboob Wednesday near Shallowater, which is about 10 miles northwest of Lubbock. I had driven in from Clovis, N.M., that morning in the hope of catching some photogenic lightning that afternoon. And while I knew that severe thunderstorms were likely, I never could have predicted what I was about to see.
After glancing out my hotel room window toward the darkening western horizon, I noticed a telltale signature on radar: a thin green line blasting ahead of the main storms. That marked the “outflow boundary,” in essence, the exhaust of a thunderstorm. Given how sharp the line appeared, I assumed it had to be carrying something that the radar could pick up. And indeed it was: dust, stirred from the vast South Plains.
I raced west, finding a turnout off a rural dirt road where I could ride out the storm and enjoy the view. Even the clouds exhibited a tinge of tan, their cinnamon billows sweeping along the ground like a swiftly moving snow squall.
Within seconds, it was on me. A chill accompanied the 40 mph gusts, which quickly increased in strength. All the while, I was sandblasted, grains still lodged in my eyes, nose and ears 18 hours later. I returned to the refuge of my vehicle as 60 to 70 mph winds buffeted what seconds before had been a tranquil, picturesque scene.
Visibility dropped to 200 feet — tame for some haboobs — as sporadic pebbles of hail and blinding rains created a scene resembling a carwash. It calmed some after 15 minutes, the sun emerging after a half-hour with only light rain overhead. But don’t be fooled — it was still plenty dangerous. Though the storm was 15 miles away, pinpoint bolts of “positive flash” lightning ricocheted out the backside.
Flooding in the haboob’s wake left numerous streets inundated, while additional waves of dusty rain deposited a thin veil of grit on my freshly washed truck.
It was a truly amazing day.
Here are more images.