Thursday, September 10, 2015

Monsooner or Later, You're Going to Get Hit

When most people who don’t live in Arizona think about the weather in Phoenix during the summer they think about the heat—the dry, unrelenting, convection oven-like, heat. And of course, they’re right to think about that. It gets so hot here in the summer you can cauterize a stab wound by holding it up against your car’s fender. (Caution: Don’t ever try that unless advised to do so by a physician.)

But the thing that seems to always surprise non-Arizonans about our summer weather is that we also experience about two or three months’ worth of monsoons. I know that most people think of monsoons as something that only happens in Asia, but the reality is that from about mid-June to mid-September monsoons loom large in the life of Arizonans.

The monsoon comes in all shapes and sizes, but it usually hits in late afternoon or early evening. My first run in with one was about a year after I moved out here. At the time I was living in Mesa (east of Phoenix) and I had to drive all the way across the county to Peoria (west of Phoenix) to go to a rehearsal for a play I was in at the time. The rehearsal started at 7:00 pm, and as I drove in a westerly direction I suddenly saw a massive wall of dust coming towards the freeway from the south. It looked kind of like this:

I had never seen anything like this in my life and I assumed my death was imminent. No weather phenomenon I had ever seen in New York looked anything like this, so I figured this was the world’s largest tornado and my corpse would end up somewhere in Oz. I hit the gas pedal as hard as I could, frantically hoping I could outrun this thing, but within a couple of minutes the dust was upon me…and it wasn’t that bad. Yes, my visibility was greatly reduced, but my car was not thrown into the air as I assumed it would be. I safely made it to rehearsal and told my castmates of the bizarre weather event I just drove through. They laughed at me and told me it was just a haboob. I assumed this was a made up word and they were just putting me on, but as it turns out “haboob” is a fancy word for dust storm. Indeed, I’d been haboobed that night and many nights since.

But the Arizona monsoon is not merely a bunch of harmless haboobs. Sometimes it brings heavy downpours, fierce winds, and obnoxiously loud thunder. While we were watching the All-Star Game this past July it actually hailed on our house for about 90 seconds. That’s right, hail! My kids were amazed when they looked out the window and saw little balls of ice bouncing off the sidewalk. Okay, I admit it, I was amazed too.

Unfortunately, these storms can also be quite damaging. Last year we got really lucky when a monsoon took out a large portion of our neighbor’s tree and it landed right next to our house…six more inches and it would have gone through our roof. A couple of weeks ago, some friends of ours were not as lucky when a tree took out their backyard gate as well as their powerline. (See below for startlingly real photograph.)

                                Photo courtesy Jon Jahrmarkt

Of course, if we want to look at this from a glass-half-full perspective, the good news is the tree fell away from their house, because things would have been significantly worse had it gone in the other direction. 

And the even better news is that in the next couple of weeks our monsoon season will come to an end, as will our triple-digit temperatures. By winter, when the rest of the country is digging their cars out of the snow and dealing with single-digit temperatures, everyone here will be skipping through the park, wearing short-sleeved shirts and sipping lemonade. And there won’t be any haboobs in sight—except for the ones talking loudly on their cellphones in movie theaters.