Dangerous dust storms are rare but not unheard of in Illinois

By Daniel Grant FarmWeek

The multi vehicle crash on I-55 near milepost 76 in south central Illinois on May 1. (Photo courtesy of Illinois State Police)

The large dust storm that struck central Illinois May 1 was a rare event for its widespread nature and destructive results.

But such storms are not unheard of in the Prairie State, which is comprised of about 57,913 square miles, according to nationsonline.org.

“Dust storms are more common in the Plains and southwest U.S.,” the National Weather Service (NWS) Lincoln office noted in a special report. “They do not happen often in Illinois but are most common around early May and June.”

Spring is typically the peak time for severe weather in the state and also the time when farm fields and other land are more exposed to wind events before crops and other vegetation emerge.

NWS reported wind speeds between 35 and 45 mph with a peak gust of 54 mph at the Springfield airport May 1 that generated the dust clouds. At those rates, the wind reached speeds comparable to a tropical storm. The NWS April climate summary also showed most of central and southeast Illinois received only 1 to 2.5 inches of precipitation in April, about 1-3 inches below average.

Radar subsequently indicated a large plume of dust across Sangamon, Montgomery, Christian, Shelby and Effingham counties May 1. It reduced visibility to near zero in some areas and resulted in a 72-vehicle pileup on Interstate 55 near Divernon and Farmersville that resulted in 37 people being transported to local hospitals and seven fatalities, according to the Illinois State Police.

The deadly portion of I-55 was closed May 1 and reopened May 2, but closed again as a precaution for several hours the afternoon of May 2 because of high winds and low visibility.

Here now is a look at other notable dust storms in Illinois the past 40 years, according to the NWS report.

  • May 17, 2017: Wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph required the closure of Interstate 72 from Jacksonville to Springfield and Interstate 55 from McLean to Bloomington. Two people were killed in an accident caused by the storm.
  • June 3, 1990: Much of northern and east central Illinois was impacted by winds up to 60 mph. Interstate 57 was closed from Arcola to Mattoon. One accident injured five people.
  • May 6, 1983: A dust storm developed in central Illinois and spread northeast to Chicago with wind speeds up to 60 mph. An accident along Interstate 57 near Rantoul involved nine cars and two semis.

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.