‘Haboobs’ Stir Critics in Arizona
By Marc Lacey, July 21, 2011
PHOENIX — The massive dust storms that swept through central Arizona this month have stirred up not just clouds of sand but a debate over what to call them.
The blinding waves of brown particles, the most recent of which hit Phoenix on Monday, are caused by thunderstorms that emit gusts of wind, roiling the desert landscape. Use of the term “haboob,” which is what such storms have long been called in the Middle East, has rubbed some Arizona residents the wrong way.
“I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob,” Don Yonts, a resident of Gilbert, Ariz., wrote to The Arizona Republic after a particularly fierce, mile-high dust storm swept through the state on July 5. “How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”
Diane Robinson of Wickenburg, Ariz., agreed, saying the state’s dust storms are unique and ought to be labeled as such.
“Excuse me, Mr. Weatherman!” she said in a letter to the editor. “Who gave you the right to use the word ‘haboob’ in describing our recent dust storm? While you may think there are similarities, don’t forget that in these parts our dust is mixed with the whoop of the Indian’s dance, the progression of the cattle herd and warning of the rattlesnake as it lifts its head to strike.”
Dust storms are a regular summer phenomenon in Arizona, and the news media typically label them as nothing more than that. But the National Weather Service, in describing this month’s particularly thick storm, used the term haboob, which was widely picked up by the news media.
“Meteorologists in the Southwest have used the term for decades,” said Randy Cerveny, a climatologist at Arizona State University. “The media usually avoid it because they don’t think anyone will understand it.”
Not everyone was put out by the use of the term. David Wilson of Goodyear, Ariz., said those who wanted to avoid Arabic terms should steer clear of algebra, zero, pajamas and khaki, as well. “Let’s not become so ‘xenophobic’ that we forget to remember that we are citizens of the world, nor fail to recognize the contributions of all cultures to the richness of our language,” he wrote.
Although use of the term often brings smirks, Mr. Cerveny said the walls of dust could have serious consequences, toppling power lines and causing huge traffic accidents. Although ultradry conditions in the desert are considered one cause for the intensity of this year’s storms, Mr. Cerveny pointed to another possible factor: the housing bust that left developments half-finished and unmaintained, creating more desert dust to be stirred up.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 22, 2011, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Haboobs’ Stir Critics In Arizona.
Photograph of dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, April 18, 1935, NOAA George E. Marsh Album. http://www.weru.ksu.edu/new_weru/multimedia/dustbowl/dustbowlpics.html or http://bit.ly/pZphD or http://tinyurl.com/h93wa