Sand and wind swirl through the Negev
Sand and wind swirl through the NegevIsrael news photo: Hana Levi Julian

Massive dust storms – the largest in a century -- are rolling back into America's Dust Bowl, bringing with them dust clouds known as “haboobs.” The word derives from the Arabic term for “strong wind.”

According to meteorologists, the huge dust storms are becoming more frequent, forming during the monsoon season from June until the end of September. This summer's dust storms are the worst to have hit since the massive “Dust Bowl” disaster that struck the Midwest in the 1930s. At that time, more than 100 million acres of topsoil were stripped from the land when the strong winds struck in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Massive storms gathered up the drought-parched topsoil and dumped it into the Atlantic Ocean, destroying the land for future farming, and creating the “Dust Bowl” region.

This past Monday, the state of Arizona was struck again – as it had been one year ago -- with the city of Phoenix shrouded in a dust cloud 2,000 feet high and nearly 60 miles wide. Nine thousand homes were left in the dark as electricity poles and tree limbs were snapped, and Sky Harbor Airport was shut down temporarily. Since June, five such dust storms have rolled into the state's valley area. Phoenix was hit by three dust storms in a row in the past seven days – a very rare phenomenon, meteorologists said, and one that could be fatal for area residents.

Just one year ago, the largest dust storm ever recorded in Phoenix hit the area. It caused havoc for the city's residents, and not only through road accidents due to poor visibility. Arizona is the epicenter for 70 percent of the nation's reported “valley fever” cases, which rose by 36 percent between 2010 and 2011. The disease is caused by the Coccidioides fungus, present in desert soil, which is tossed into the air and breathed in when dust storms blow across the area.

The dust that is thrown into the air also carries a poisonous mix of chemicals and bacteria resulting from fertilizers, stockyard fecal matter, other fungi and heavy metals from pollution. All of these can cause health problems such as asthma, cardiovascular and eye diseases as well as other conditions.

Israel also is periodically struck by dust and sand storms, particularly in the summer, during the "sharav" or “hamsin” (desert wind) season. But residents of the Middle East have been living with the phenomenon for centuries, and at the first sign of an oncoming storm, children, the elderly, and those with medical conditions are alerted to remain indoors.