Dust storms wreak havoc in Illinois


Megan McKnight

A massive dust storm on an Illinois highway caused a pile up of over 70 cars, resulting in 37 serious injuries and seven deaths.

Megan McKnight, Copy Editor

Many Midwesterners are still reeling from the effects of a massive dust storm that hit parts of Illinois on May 1, resulting in a 72 car pile up. Seven people involved in the crash passed away, and 37 more between the ages of two to 80 were hospitalized for various injuries.

The horrific storm was caused by a combination of the recently tilled fields lining the highway and a spell of dry weather in April that caused the top layer of soil to become loose while the lower layers absorbed all of the available moisture. 

When combined with the high winds blowing across the vast open plains that surround Midwest highways, the combination of wind, soil and dust collected into a mass cloud that restricted drivers’ visibility and caused various serious car crashes on the highway.

Although most of the cars involved in the accidents were typically small vehicles, two semi trucks were also impacted and ended up catching fire, leaving people near the semis with burns. The rest of the injuries range from minor to life threatening, and the damage done to the families of the victims is dreadful.

Law enforcement officials and rescue services were able to identify the bodies of the seven victims, though one person’s remains couldn’t be identified on the scene and he was later identified as Otto Medina-Salazar of Carthage, Missouri. The other victims include two married couples, Joseph and Donna Bates and Michael and Amy Zinchuk, a beloved piano teacher, Shirley Harper, and an elderly man, Earl LeGrand. 

According to the police report, the scene of the crash was so chaotic, it was extremely difficult to identify the remains. “Initially, six individuals were found deceased at the crash scene. However, the severity of the crash masked the remains and what was previously believed to be the remains of one individual was two,” it stated.

During a news update, Kevin Schott, Montgomery County Emergency Management Director, the crash scene was extremely difficult to navigate for first responders. “We had multiple vehicles involved, some were on fire,” he said. “So we had vehicle fires to extinguish, we had to search every vehicle whether they were involved in the accident or just pulled over to check for injuries, to getting them out of there rapidly and getting to the hospital so that we can provide professional care for them.”

In addition to this storm’s havoc on Montgomery county, the Illinois government issued dust storm warnings in various parts of the state on May 7, warning citizens to avoid driving if possible due to possible reduced visibility.

Unfortunately, storms like this one are not an uncommon occurrence. Dust storms can form on any land that isn’t covered with vegetation when there are high wind speeds, making tilled fields, construction zones and even sandboxes a hazard. 

These storms are usually seen in drier terrains, such as states in the southwest region of the US. States like Arizona and Nevada, which are primarily covered in dry soil and sand, are particularly susceptible to dust storms, although they are becoming more common in other parts of the country as well.

This is largely due to the effects of climate change, as the increased heat and direct sunlight dry up large bodies of water, leaving the floors of lakes and rivers exposed. Because this land was once underwater, the soil is unprotected by vegetation, and it can easily become a dust storm when exposed to high winds.

Other unpredictable weather patterns can also affect the likelihood of dust storms, such as increased flash flooding. Although this may seem to combat these storms with their excess moisture, they actually have the opposite effect, as the sheer quantity of water during a flood prevents it from absorbing into the ground, actually leaving the soil drier than before.

And, as seen in this horrific accident, dust storms can have many negative effects for humans. Not only does the dust decrease visibility on the road, but it also irritates the eyes, mouth and lungs. Breathing in too much dust can be a health hazard, whether it’s carrying toxic chemicals or not. 

As extremely damaging dust storms continue to appear  more frequently throughout the United States, it’s still unknown the amount of damage they may cause. However, while much is still up in the air about these storms, it is vital that people stay informed about this phenomenon in order to protect both themselves and their loved ones.