How to Stay Safe in a Windstorm

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Written by Bernie Carr

Earlier this year, back when the weather was cooler, we took a trip to Death Valley National Park with some friends. The park is beautiful and has many awe-inspiring sights. We stayed at a campground on site. Next to our site were tent campers. One our second night, I experienced a huge windstorm. We were sleeping in our vehicles when the wind started picking up. Before long, the wind started getting fiercer and was actually shaking the cars. We heard the tent campers nearby running to their cars as they quickly shut their doors. An hour later they quickly left camp. It was a long night, with the wind whipping up stronger and stronger. Dawn came and we were ready to check our premises. The winds were still raging. We had a canopy over our picnic table that was completely mangled. The campers next to use completely left their tents and belongings when the took off in the middle of the night. Everyone who was still at the camp sheltered in their vehicles. We were relieved to find our outdoor grill which we had left boxed up on the bench was still intact. I’m not sure if the tent campers were coming back for their stuff, but we did not stick around to find out. As soon as the wind slowed down and visibility improved, we left the campsite.

Wind emergencies

I have never experienced a huge windstorm such as this. But now that I have been in one, I can imagine the damage that can occur. Windstorms can occur with little or no warning. As we are always concerned about emergency preparedness, we had checked the weather forecast the day before while we still had internet connectivity. There was no mention of a windstorm in the weather report.

Windstorms are often left out of natural disaster discussions, but they can be dangerous and damaging.

Types of Wind Storms

Straight-line wind is a term used to define any thunderstorm wind that is not associated with rotation, and is used mainly to differentiate from tornadic winds.

A downdraft is a small-scale column of air that rapidly sinks toward the ground.

A macroburst is an outward burst of strong winds at or near the surface with horizontal dimensions larger than 4 km (2.5 mi) and occurs when a strong downdraft reaches the surface. To visualize this process, imagine the way water comes out of a faucet and hits the bottom of a sink. The column of water is the downdraft and the outward spray at the bottom of the sink is the macroburst. Macroburst winds may begin over a smaller area and then spread out over a wider area, sometimes producing damage similar to a tornado. Although usually associated with thunderstorms, macrobursts can occur with showers too weak to produce thunder.

A downburst is the general term used to broadly describe macro and microbursts. Downburst is the general term for all localized strong wind events that are caused by a strong downdraft within a thunderstorm, while microburst simply refers to an especially small downburst that is less than 4 km across.

A gust front is the leading edge of rain-cooled air that clashes with warmer thunderstorm inflow. Gust fronts are characterized by a wind shift, temperature drop, and gusty winds out ahead of a thunderstorm. Sometimes the winds push up air above them, forming a shelf cloud or detached roll cloud.

SOURCE: NSSL NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory

Derechos

Another type of wind store is a “derecho,” a word that is derived from the Spanish word for “straight.” That’s because the winds are fairly strait, not circular. They usually occur in the summer. They tend to cover a widespread area, and are typically associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.

Haboob

I think the windstorm that we experienced in Death Valley is called a haboob: a wall of dust that is pushed out along the ground from a thunderstorm downdraft at high speeds. The word “haboob” is derived from an Arabic word for “blasting.” The winds can pick up dust from the desert or fields, creating a thick dust clout quickly travels across the landscape. These winds can cause respiratory problems, damage property, cause poor visibility, and dangerous driving conditions.

How to stay safe in a windstorm

As soon as you become aware of a windstorm, seek shelter. Windstorms can cause damage and injury from debris flying around. In our case, we were already inside our vehicle, so there was not much else we could do. We prayed the winds would not get much worse.

The tent campers who ran to their car did the right thing by seeking shelter, however, it may have been unsafe to drive given the poor visibility.

If you happen to be driving during a windstorm, make sure you keep a good distance away from other cars. It may be a good idea to just pull over to the shoulder of the road, or a parking lot nearby and wait it out.

If you are at home and the weather forecast does predict a windstorm, take a few steps to prepare:

  • Secure any outdoor furniture, lawn ornaments, trash cans, etc. If you have potted plants, bring them inside.
  • Bring pets indoors.
  • Shut the windows.
  • Prune overhanging tree branches if you have time. Once the windstorm hits, it is too late to go outside to start clipping.
  • Windstorms often cause downed power lines, so get your power outage supplies ready. Include lighting and batteries, first aid kit, water, food, cash, mobile phone, and backup chargers.
  • If you are tempted to go outside to watch the storm, resist the urge. Stay indoors until the storm passes.

If you are outside in a city when a windstorm hits, head to the nearest building and seek shelter. If you are outdoors, get down in a ditch, lay with your face down, with your hands behind your head.


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Bernie Carr is the founder of Apartment Prepper. She has written several books including the best-selling Prepper’s Pocket Guide, Jake and Miller’s Big Adventure, The Penny-Pinching Prepper and How to Prepare for Most Emergencies on a $50 a Month Budget. Bernie’s latest e-book, FRUGAL DIY has just been released on Amazon. Her work appears in sites such as the Allstate Blog and Clark.com, as well as print magazines such as Backwoods Survival Guide and Prepper Survival Guide. She has been featured in national publications such as Fox Business and Popular Mechanics. Learn more about Bernie here.

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