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Dust storm on Oklahoma interstate causes pile-ups, injuries

The low visibility produced by the storm triggered a multi-car wreck. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

A dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma triggered multiple crashes involving about three dozen vehicles on Thursday, forcing police to shut down part of the heavily traveled Interstate 35 for several hours amid near blackout conditions.

More than a dozen people were injured as winds up to 55 mph whipped up the soil off farmlands near Blackwell, NBC station KFOR-TV reported

In a scene reminiscent of the Dust Bowl days, choking dust shrouded Interstate 35, which links Dallas and Oklahoma City to Kansas City, Mo.

Dozens of vehicles were stopped dead in their tracks 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 was closed between U.S. 60 and Oklahoma 11, an eight-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.

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.

Rolf Clements / The Ponca City News via AP

These cars were among the nearly three dozen involved in dust storm crashes Thursday near Blackwell, Okla.

"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 even in the nearby town of Ponca City.

"It looked like a huge fog," he said. "We've had dust storms before, but I don't remember anything of this magnitude in years." 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rolf Clements / The Ponca City News via AP

Rescuers work to remove a woman pinned in a vehicle involved in the Interstate 35 crashes Thursday near Blackwell, Okla.

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