Here comes the haboob: Texas High Plains getting walloped by dust storms

A motorist approaches an intersection southeast of Lubbock on Feb. 14. High winds kicked up a dust storm that blanketed parts of West Texas. (Mark Rogers For The Texas Tribune, Mark Rogers For The Texas Tribune)

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LUBBOCK — The Texas High Plains is a vast swath of oil-rich soil and farm and ranch land as far as the eye can see — only the peaks of Caprock Canyon break up the endless miles of plains in the region.

The picturesque landscape can yield beautiful sunsets, but it also brings dirt.

Lots of dirt.

This week, the region has been blanketed in a thick layer of dust kicked up by powerful winds that reached as high as 69 miles per hour, according to the Lubbock office of the National Weather Service.

“These are the kinds of winds that you see with tropical storms or hurricanes,” said Harrison Sincavage, a forecaster with the weather service. “But rather than have all the rain, everything is dusty and brown, and occasionally on fire.”

While there were no wildfires this week, the region has been under a red flag warning. And a high wind advisory. And a visibility warning. And an air-quality warning, too.

Those kinds of conditions would be a nightmare for most other places in Texas. In the High Plains, these dust storms are common and can evolve into haboobs — intense, gritty sandstorms that quickly put a sepia-colored filter over everything and turn the baby blue sky a dirty brown hue.

Sincavage said reasons include the region’s elevation and its flatness. There’s not much in the way of hills or trees, or human-made structures, to slow down the wind.

“The faster winds can get to the surface better than they can along the I-35 corridor between Dallas and Oklahoma City,” Sincavage said. “Unfortunately, with the wind comes all the lovely dust.”

Dust storms typically last an hour or two, but the longer the wind has to pick up speed, the more dirt and dust it can scour off the dry ground and the more likely it is to grow into a haboob (which is an Arabic word for a violent dust storm). The ideal conditions occur most often around March in this part of Texas.

By Thursday, the dust had settled and the sun was beaming over Lubbock, which meant there were long lines at the local car washes. Lanita Ladd waited outside her silver SUV as her husband, Cliff, detailed the inside.

“It was horrible,” Lanita said of this week’s dust storms. “It really kicks up your allergies, and you can’t get outside and do anything like walk or take the dog out.”

Lanita has lived in Lubbock since she was a teenager, so she tries to keep her usual routine when this happens. She took her mother to an exercise class, but the weather made that a hassle.

“We try to keep up with our activities, it’s just we get blown away when we’re outside,” Lanita said. “The winds yesterday were so bad that I got outside and had to try and get my balance. Then when you drive, you look at the sky and it’s just brown.”

Once Cliff was done cleaning their vehicle, he shrugged the weather off. Lubbock might have dirt and wind, but it’s better than other places, Cliff said.

“Yeah, we have to deal with the wind, but we don’t have to deal with extreme flooding or hurricanes,” Cliff said. “Year-round, we have a lot better days than bad days out here.”

On Wednesday in Amarillo, a nearly 80 mph wind caused concerns about another bad day of visibility. The day before, the dust in Amarillo was so thick that visibility fell below 1 mile at times, causing vehicle accidents. The Texas Department of Public Safety referred to the weather as a “brown out.”

“With all the droughts we’ve had over the last three years, it dries everything out,” explained Melissa Beat, a meteorologist with the NWS Amarillo office. “Then if farmers haven’t been able to plant the field and things aren’t coming up to hold down that dirt pack, it allows for all the dust to get moving around.”

Beat said the La Niña weather pattern, which causes warmer winter temperatures in the South, has been lingering for three years, which has contributed to the state’s ongoing drought and made the subsequent dust storms in the region worse.

While locals may be used to it, the conditions can still cause problems for people who have to work or drive in the dust. Beat said it’s a different kind of storm to drive through, so people need to respond differently.

“A lot of people think, I should leave my lights on and pull off to the side of the road,” Beat said. “But if you’re parked on the side of the road, the visibility is almost nothing, and a car comes up and sees lights, they’re going to think that you’re on the road and not off to the side.”

Even with the low visibility creating chaos for the region, Beat said it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

“It’s just what happens on these windy days that we get here in West Texas,” she said.