TULSA, Okla. – A massive dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma triggered a multi-vehicle accident along a major interstate Thursday, forcing police to shut down part of the heavily traveled roadway amid near blackout conditions.
In a scene reminiscent of the Dust Bowl days, choking dust suspended on strong wind gusts shrouded Interstate 35, which links Dallas and Oklahoma City to Kansas City, Mo. Video from television station helicopters showed the four-lane highway virtually disappearing into billowing dust on the harsh landscape near Blackwell, plus dozens of vehicles scattered in the median and on the shoulders.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Jodi Palmer, a dispatcher with the Kay County Sheriff's Office. "In this area alone, the dirt is blowing because we've been in a drought. I think from the drought everything's so dry and the wind is high."
The highway patrol said the dust storm caused a multi-car accident, and local police said nearly three dozen cars and tractor-trailers were involved. Blackwell Police Chief Fred LeValley said nine people were injured, but there were no fatalities.
State transportation workers were called into to close the highway between U.S. 60 and Oklahoma 11, an 8-mile stretch of the cross-country roadway.
"We have very high winds and blowing dust causing a near blackout condition," Capt. James West of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said Thursday afternoon. He said visibility was less than 10 feet.
The stretch of closed roadway reopened Thursday evening after crews cleaned up debris and waited for winds to die down, Oklahoma Department of Transportation spokesman Cole Hackett said.
The area is just south of the Kansas state line in far northern Oklahoma. Interstate 35 runs from the Mexican border in south Texas to Duluth, Minn.
A red flag fire warning was in place for parts of northern Oklahoma on Thursday, as was a blowing dust advisory.
The National Weather Service forecast for the area said winds would subside to 20 mph or lower overnight but that gusts as high as 28 mph could continue. Calm winds were expected by Friday night.
The area has suffered through an extended drought and many farmers had recently loosened the soil while preparing for the winter wheat season.
"You have the perfect combination of extended drought in that area ... and we have the extremely strong winds," said Gary McManus, the Oklahoma associate state climatologist.
"Also, the timing is bad because a lot of those farm fields are bare. The soil is so dry, it's like powder. Basically what you have is a whole bunch of topsoil waiting for the wind to blow it away. It's no different from the 1930s than it is now."
Steve Austin, a Kay County commissioner, said visibility was terrible.
"It looked like a huge fog was over the city of Ponca City," he said. "We've had dust storms before, but I don't remember anything of this magnitude in years."