BLACKWELL, Okla. —
A massive dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma triggered a multi-vehicle accident on Interstate 35 Thursday, forcing police to shut down 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 I-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 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.”
According to Oklahoma Highway Patrol, 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.
The interstate was closed between U.S. 60 and Oklahoma 11 — an eight-mile stretch — for nearly six hours, from 1 p.m. to 6:53 p.m.
“We have very high winds and blowing dust causing a near blackout condition,” said OHP Capt. James West. “Visibility is less than 10 feet. Please avoid this area until further notice.”
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 Mesonet, a series of weather-recording sites throughout Oklahoma, reported strong wind gusts throughout the day. The site at Medford reported a high gust of 51 mph. The site at Blackwell recorded a maximum gust of 47 mph. The Mesonet site at Cherokee showed a gust of 52 mph. The highest gust was 57 mph at the Mesonet site at May Ranch in Woods County.
Winds were expected to calm tonight, but gusty Friday and calmer again Friday night, according to a National Weather Service forecast.
The area has suffered through an extended drought and many farmers recently had tilled 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.”
The high winds also gave Pond Creek and Nash firefighters a hard time when a pile of scrap wood caught fire Thursday afternoon just east of Pond Creek.
“I have no idea what started it,” said Josh Stephens, Pond Creek fire chief. “It was pile of scrap wood outside the pallet factory in Pond Creek.”
Stephens said the main concern was keeping the flames from the pile of burning wood from jumping U.S. 60, where it would have gotten into areas where it would have been harder to fight.
All together, 12 Pond Creek firefighters and three from Nash battled the fire with three brush rigs, a pumper and two tanker trucks. They were on the scene three hours, Stephens said.
“We brought in a track hoe and spread the pile out and buried some stuff and put it all out,” Stephens said.
The fire forced authorities to close U.S. 60 for three hours, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.
The wind also snapped a power pole near the Springs Medical building near St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center and Government Springs Park.
That knocked out power to the building and some houses nearby, said John Little, spokesman for OG&E Electric Services. Power was to have been restored by Thursday evening, he said.
Staff writer Phyllis Zorn and The Associated Press contributed to this story.