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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
The edges of these dust storms are deceiving, maybe even pretty, as dirt picked up from the desert floor catches sunbeams on the rolling wind.
But inside a dust storm, if a driver were to unwisely choose to drive into one, the dirt in the gusting air concentrates and visibility drops, sometimes to just three feet.
That means drivers can’t see even the white line on the road, creating the terrifying – and sometimes fatal – dilemma of how to navigate the traffic ahead and behind or face the unknown of pulling fully off the road.
Such a storm, also called a haboob, claimed six lives Monday evening when 25 drivers crashed while driving inside a high-powered dust storm on Interstate 10 west of Lordsburg near the Arizona border, this one with sand-saturated winds up to 51 mph.
“The edges of them aren’t that thick, so you think, ‘I can probably see in that,’ but once you get into it you realize you can’t see,” said Tom Bird, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in El Paso.
“I’ve made the mistake of driving through one, and it’s a terrifying experience. … You can see the hood of your car, but you cannot see the road. So the visibility is not really low, it’s near zero. You literally cannot tell if you are staying in your lane. You can’t see behind you. You can’t see ahead of you. You can’t see if you are fixing to crash into someone or someone is about to crash into you.”
State Police aren’t sure exactly what happened to start the 25-vehicle pileup Monday about 5:15 p.m., but by the end of it, 18 commercial trucks and seven passenger vehicles were mangled in the westbound lanes of I-10. The highway was shut down for hours in New Mexico and in Arizona, forcing drivers in Arizona headed east to take a 105-mile detour.
The dead are Jose Manuel Clemente, 77, and Maurella Clemente Munoz, 38, of El Paso; Jose Elias Caraveo-Serrano, 30, and Susana Caraveo, 29, of Phoenix, along with their 9-month-old daughter; and Josefina Silva, 47, of Escondido, Calif.
State Police say some people were transported to nearby hospitals with injuries but didn’t have a number.
It’s just the latest in a series of crashes on this particular 22-mile stretch of road from Lordsburg to the Arizona line. In February, two women were killed near Lordsburg when their car got sandwiched between two semi-trucks in a crash caused by a dust storm. In 2014, eight people were killed in a dust storm near the same place as Monday’s crash.
The larger stretch of I-10 from Deming to Phoenix also gets regular dust storms, and parts of I-10 are closed several times a year due to blowing dust.
State Police spokesman officer Carl Christiansen said Tuesday that his agency is still investigating Monday’s string of crashes.
“We know that somebody stopped. We don’t know which vehicle caused the chain reaction,” he said. “Visibility in there is extremely limited, no more than 5 feet in front of you, and most people slow down. They drop down to 15, 10 mph while trying to determine what they are trying to do. After that is a chain reaction.”
The best advice police and weather officials say is to avoid driving into the storms, which can almost always be seen from afar either heading to the highway or crossing it.
“In that area you can see them in the distance and you can make a wise decision. They don’t blind side you. You know, you see them, you marvel at them, you gawk. Even if it’s miles in front of you, ‘pull aside, stay alive,’ ” Bird said, quoting a slogan used to educate drivers about the dangers of driving into a dust storm.
Dust storms will pass by in between five and 20 minutes, though some can take longer, Bird said. They can be several miles long and wide and can travel more than 100 miles before the wind loses its strength and the dirt drops back to the ground.
The storms can happen any time but are more frequent in the summer after months of little moisture create swaths of loose, dry sand easily swept up by cold air dropping out of storms as the storm dies down.
“Cold air falls to the ground like a water balloon, but without the water, and spreads out. It’s like a big fan or bulldozer moving across the desert kicking up dust, creating a big huge arc of dust,” Bird said.
Pull off the road
If you do find yourself in such an arc of dust, the best strategy is to pull off entirely to the right shoulder and farther if you can. The New Mexico stretch of I-10 doesn’t have any steep drop-offs that would be more dangerous than staying on the highway in a storm, Christiansen said.
Once on the side of the road, turn off blinkers, headlights and brake lights by putting the emergency brake on and taking your foot off the brake.
“Otherwise, other vehicles may think you are in the traffic lane, that you are still moving and possibly crash into your parked vehicle,” said Emilee Cantrell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
The department, the weather service and State Police work together to put blowing dust alert notifications on electronic highway signs. And some roads in New Mexico and Arizona are posted with permanent highway signs indicating the possibility of the deadly storms.
“We have signage that says ‘do not stop in the lane of travel,’ but inevitably somebody always does,” Christiansen said.
Bird said drivers who continue through a dust storm are often in a hurry to deliver a commercial load or are unfamiliar with the power of dust storms.
“They’re not used to dealing with it. It seems likes it’s not nearly as bad as it is. It fools you,” Bird said.