Could You Survive the Arizona Monsoon Season Madness?

What’s a bit of rain, dust, and wind when it comes to hitting the road, right? The Arizona monsoon season is upon us with its sudden rains, lashing wind, dust storms, and, occasionally, battering hail.

Glad I wasn’t out Ubering when the first monsoon storm hit the other day. What you are seeing in the video below is an Arizona monsoon storm lashing the Valley. They usually hit us in the Metro Phoenix area between July and August, striking suddenly, and, as you can see, they can be quite intense. And Arizonans out on the roads lose their minds.

If you’re not familiar with our yearly change in weather, read on and see if you think you could survive the Arizona monsoon madness.

What is this wet stuff? Sky tears?

Motoring around during one of these powerful storms can be challenging because you’ve got heavy winds driving rain into your windshield like someone is aiming a fire hose at it. You can’t see anything — you might as well not even have windshield wipers for all the good they do you. And because of our dry climate, most Arizonans rarely use their wipers, so are surprised to find the rubber blades have usually rotted from the the sun and flop around almost uselessly when you actually need them.

If you want to see Phoenix slow to a crawl, sprinkle a few drops of rain on our streets. And I’m talking regular, softly falling rain, not this wrath of God stuff you get in a monsoon. I wish I could find a clip of our local TV reporters because it’s hilarious as they try to imbue their reports about normal rain with artificial drama — the producers send these poor bastards out into the rain for live shots so the talking heads back in the studio can ask them inane questions and pontificate about how it’s affecting the average citizen’s commute. Seriously, you would think a Category 5 hurricane was about to roll in and smash things up. It’s just rain people — get some perspective!

Want to see things get crazy? Add in a monsoon storm.

Learn how to drive, you f***ing a******!

You see, out on the roads, we act like we are getting hit by an apocalypse level storm any time we see a few drops of rain on our windshields. In our defense, we hardly get any rain here in Phoenix, barely 36 days out of the year, which results in a measly annual average of 8 inches (20 cm). During the lengthy arid downtime, your basic Arizonan totally forgets how to drive in the wet stuff. They’re not purposefully driving like insane assholes when it rains (any other time, yeah, they are), they’re suffering amnesia and have forgotten how to do it. When the heavens open up, it’s a sudden crash course (no pun intended) in operating a motor vehicle during mildly adverse conditions, resulting in a lot of bad driving. Seriously, accidents everywhere — and that’s just with regular rain, never mind when a monsoon storm hits. You don’t even want to be out there when shit gets real.

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When a monsoon storm hits while I’m on the road, I treat it like I’ve suddenly been inserted into Mad Max: Fury Road and everyone is out to wreck me and steal my shit. At the first opportunity, I immediately pull into the closest parking lot and ride that sucker out. I’m not playing bumper cars with these fools in the wind-whipped rain. I’m waiting until the carnage is over. (warning: graphic violence)

Check out these time lapses of monsoon storms. They do look pretty savage — and weirdly beautiful. And they’re no fun to drive in.

Built for flooding (<-insert sarcasm)

When an epic storm hits, things do get a bit chaotic. Any amount of sustained rain means bad news because a lot of our desert soil is caliche. This stuff is rock hard like natural cement and that means it doesn’t absorb water, which tends to pool on top of it. Caliche is just an all-around pain in the ass. When my friend’s tiny Yorkie Derek died at 14 years old, she tearfully asked me to bury him in her backyard. I’d never dug into caliche before and I thought I fractured my wrists with the first bone-jarring shovel strike. I’m not joking, after about two hours of digging (and yes, I tried soaking the ground), I’d maybe got down a foot-and-a-half (45 cm) when I gave up. Luckily for me, poor Derek was a tiny bugger at about a pound-and-a-half (.68 kg) so the hole was adequate (kind of — sorry, Derek). But now I’m pretty sure I know why the graves of murder victims found in the desert are usually shallow.

As far as handling runoff, things aren’t quite as bad nowadays, but back when I was younger, drainage in some Valley cities was pretty terrible. One street in my neighborhood, 72nd, used to flood so deep it looked like a river and even had a slight current as it flowed south. Cars routinely stalled in it. Sossamon Road used to have a huge dip that turned into a lake and cars would get swamped trying to go through it — the fire department would be pulling one car out as another fool would be attempting to go through it.

We did have epic flooding a couple of years ago that turned one freeway into a lake pretty quickly.

Oh, and if you’re on the outskirts of town, previously dry washes can turn into deadly, raging torrents in the blink of an eye — never cross a wash when it’s flooding. Ever. You never know when you’ll be the car that doesn’t make it.

Sean, meet Hydroplaning — Hydroplaning, meet Sean

My first experience driving in the monsoon didn’t go very well. When I was seventeen, one night my friends and I went to see a punk band called TSOL. Unfortunately, a monsoon storm hit and knocked out the power to downtown Phoenix and the promoters eventually canceled the show. I got stuck driving my friend’s mother’s car because I was the only one without a date. Everyone else was making out and I was acting quite foolish , speeding along and creating a huge bow wave by swerving into standing water in the right lane (annoying my passengers to no end) and cackling like an idiot.

With all the PDA going on, the car was pretty steamed up and the defogger wasn’t working. It was hard to see — the street lights were out and headlights of approaching cars were reflecting off the slick streets affecting depth perception. Through the fogged up windshield, which I made worse by smearing it with my fingers, I could make out a mysterious cherry red glow. Turns out it was a cop standing in the middle of the intersection. Because the traffic lights were out, he had set up some road flares and was out there on foot directing traffic. Naturally, I panicked and forgot every bit of instruction they’d given me in driver’s ed classes in high school as well as any rudimentary physics I’d learned. I did the worst thing possible — I jammed on the brakes. This was in the days before anti-lock brakes, so naturally, they locked up. And suddenly I discovered what hydroplaning is as the car fishtailed almost out of control.

The car came to a stop slightly in front of the alarmed and now irate policeman. I inched up and slowly rolled the window down to apologize. He took one look of me in my punk gear complete with eyeliner smeared under my eyes like war paint and shouted at me to get the hell out of there and drive like I’d been behind the wheel before. A very subdued me drove well below the speed limit the whole way back to Mesa.

Oh, and when my friend dropped me off that night around two in the morning? Of course, 72nd Street was flooded and flowing down to where it formed a mini waterfall where the street ended in the desert. My buddy took one look at it and refused to drive his mom’s car across, so I had to wade it and squelch my way home about a third of a mile. Damn caliche.

The mighty rain bomb

Now, if you want to see some intense rain, check out this wet microburst, also known as a rain bomb, that hit Tucson. My car got buffeted by one of these back in the ’90s when I was on the freeway cresting a rise — scared the crap out me as I fought to control the car. It wrecked tons of house roofs in the area ripping off tile and State Farm had to set up a storm center to handle the massive amount of claims in a couple mile radius around my parents’ house.

We’re all going to die!

The other challenge driving during monsoon season is when a haboob rolls through — we used to just call them dust storms but then the weather guys started using the term haboob, which is Arabic for violent storm. After the immature local men (that would be the majority of them) stopped sniggering because the weather person said ‘boob,’ Valley denizens slowly adopted it. Haboobs look ominous as they sweep across the Valley — it’s an impressive wall of dust up to a mile high and 50 miles wide — and can create an intense feeling of dread in the uninitiated, but they’re not too bad (unless you’re in an airliner that’s trying to land) though they will drop visibility, sometimes practically to a few yards around you.

So how do you survive the Arizona monsoon season? I usually stay indoors. But if you must venture out and a weather event hits, the primary thing you want to remember is not to act like an idiot. Common sense wins most of the time (unless you’re under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In that case, you’re pretty much screwed, but you’re just too dumb to realize it. Good luck and we’ll see you on the 6 o’clock news).

Anyway, if you ever plan on coming to Arizona, be prepared to experience monsoon storms and haboobs if you’re here around July through August. While I can’t guarantee you’ll see anything cool weather-wise, I can guarantee it will be hotter than hell and more humid than normal.

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5 thoughts on “Could You Survive the Arizona Monsoon Season Madness?

  1. Lisa Porter Cordovana

    Well done! Loved it, of course! And I was one of the immature ones laughing at haboob when they started saying it in 1998. I’m still laughing. It’s a funny word!

  2. I think I can definitely act like an idiot during a monsoon–I mean, you should see me during the Fourth of July when the neighbors set off fireworks. The cat has to tell me to calm down. So, I’ve got that part covered. I think the minute the weather report even mentions rain in Arizona, I’ll just let someone else drive. 🙂

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Closing your eyes can bring on a sense of peace – – only if someone else is driving, of course.

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