TONKAWA — Dry clouds of grit swept across Kay County on Thursday afternoon, leading to a 27-vehicle crash that caused multiple injuries and prompting authorities to clamp off the state's major north-south thoroughfare for nearly six hours as blowing dust blotted out the sun.
High winds and blowing topsoil created near-blackout conditions, delaying emergency responders from promptly reaching the injured in a scene reminiscent of the Dirty Thirties.
“There were times when we didn't have visibility going beyond our hoods,” Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. Jeff James said.
The dust storm caused 12 crashes involving 27 vehicles. Twelve people were treated for injuries, none of which were deemed life-threatening, trooper Betsy Randolph said.
Mangled vehicles littered the side of the highway as emergency responders — some with bandannas across their mouths and noses — pulled the injured from the wreckage.
A sedan sat atop a sports car, its rear wheels resting on what remained of a windshield. The abandoned vehicles were slowly covered with a thin layer of red-brown dust, and what lay more than a few feet beyond in any direction was guesswork.
Interstate 35 was closed in both directions about 1 p.m., and was reopened just before 7 p.m. During that time, traffic was rerouted through Blackwell, which Blackwell Police Chief Fred LeValley called a “madhouse.”
Peter Becker, of Dallas, was en route to Topeka, Kan., but was delayed due to the dust storm. He stopped at a truck stop to find an alternate route. He was supposed to meet friends Thursday evening in Wichita, but expected he might be late for dinner.
Becker, who rides with the Patriot Guard, said he's seen worse dust storms in west Texas.
“I've got a four-wheel drive pickup truck. I should be able to make it,” Becker said.
Gary McManus of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey said the factors working together to produce the blowing dust in northern Oklahoma are the usual suspects, namely prolonged severe drought, winds gusting to over 50 mph, and lots of bare wheat fields.
“The topsoils in that part of the state are powder-dry,” McManus said, “and a lot of farmers will have worked their ground and dusted their wheat in, planting it in those powdery soils and hoping for a rain.
The Oklahoma Mesonet weather network station at Blackwell, including Thursday, has gone 34 consecutive days with less than a quarter of an inch of rain on any one day.
“Unfortunately, that rain just hasn't arrived up there. They've missed out on the last few rain events, and the drought continues to intensify. The wheat is having a tough time emerging due to the drought and so there is little vegetation to hold the dust down. Just like during the dust storms of the 1930s, the topsoil sits waiting for a strong wind and takes flight once that wind arrives.”
“This is just as bad as a tornado as far as flying debris; you know you can be injured by flying debris just like you can during a tornado with the winds being this high,” Ponca City emergency manager Paula Cain said.
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.
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.”