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When the wind blows

My Generation: The horrific 72-car pileup on I-55 was a tragedy that can result in better plans.

Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

May 17, 2023

4 Min Read
wreckage caused by the May 1, 2023, dust storm on I-55
PILEUP: Accidents occurred on both north and southbound lanes on Interstate 55, between milepost 72 and 78 near Farmersville, Ill., in Montgomery County. Photos courtesy of Illinois State Police

Farmers have a ritual.

The ground thaws in the spring. They work the ground. They plant the seeds. They hope for a rain. Not too much, of course. Just enough.

But on May 1, that ritual was interrupted in Montgomery County in Illinois. The ground was dry, short by about half the average April rainfall. Before those seeds could fully emerge, wind swept in and lifted the ground off itself.

Filling the air and carried on wind, the ground in the air became a storm. Those winds were the result of an impressive pressure gradient that intersected over the Midwest, creating 35- to 45-mph winds that blew perpendicular to Interstate 55, reaching 55 mph by midafternoon.

It was an actual dust storm.

Not a big one, mind you. Not the kind that fills a whole state of Oklahoma or the Texas Panhandle, but the kind that fits inside an average Illinois county. Just before 11 a.m., it completely blinded drivers on I-55, resulting in a 72-car pileup that injured 37 and killed eight.

firefighters gather after dust storm

Photos from that day could be mistaken for a war zone. Total devastation, scorched earth and twisted steel.

But that scene in central Illinois was a result not of war but of a sequence of normal events, with horrific timing.

Farmers doing their jobs, some tilling and some no-tilling, but crops not yet covering the ground.

Unusually terrific wind gusting straight across the prairie.

Drivers traveling a busy thoroughfare, going the places they needed to go. Until they couldn’t see.

Cause and effect

Eric Snodgrass, revered meteorologist with Nutrien Ag, would tell you this event actually started last fall, as soil moisture deficits began to rack up. Then came a drier-than-normal spring. Then the atmosphere sent a strong wind.

“Farmers aren’t doing anything different,” he says. “This year, the problem was this wind that came on the backside of a system.”

He’d even tell you that dust storms aren’t as rare as we think, even in the Midwest. We get them in the spring and fall, though more rarely in the spring because it’s wetter then. Unless it’s a dry spring.

dust storm with low visibility

Topography doesn’t get much credit in his book, either. Sure, there was a 30- to 40-foot downslope from west to east in the area west of the interstate. But it’s not like the mountains that can direct wind speed and path. He adds that fence rows or tree lines wouldn’t have helped much either.

“Dust blows over the top of those things,” he says. “People misunderstand the power of the atmosphere here.”

Sometimes, normal stuff combines in a sequence that results in horrifying consequences. Like dirt, and wind, and drivers.

But we humans like to blame something — or someone. We suffer from the fundamental attribution error, which is our tendency to blame someone’s character while ignoring situational factors. It’s what led folks to say, “Those drivers are to blame because they should’ve slowed down,” or “Those farmers are to blame because they tilled the fields.”

This blaming is a human problem. Social media undoubtedly exacerbates the fundamental attribution error, as folks conflate ideas and spread conspiracy like wildfire.

“We want to attribute the calamity, not to the environment, but to the decision-making of the person,” Snodgrass says. “Unless it happens to you! Then it’s the environment.”

The reality is that it was a sequence of events that led to a tragedy.

What to do

First, know the trends. We’ve seen very strong winds over the past six months, with a standard deviation of 2.5 mph more than normal. It doesn’t sound like much, but averaged over the past six months, Snodgrass calls it “quite significant.”

And the wind’s not stopping. The planet is round and temperatures vary, and wind is the atmosphere’s way of redistributing heat and cold, he explains. Over the past four springs, the temperature contrast from north to south was large. Last year, for example, Texas was boiling, but North Dakota saw a freeze in May. The result is wind, as the atmosphere attempts to achieve equilibrium.

firefighters after I-55 dust storm

“The higher the temperature contrast, the greater the pressure gradient, the stronger the wind will be between it,” Snodgrass says.

So, the wind will blow.

Farmers will plant every May.

Drivers will go places.

Blame falls squarely on the atmosphere. But the next time these events occur at the same time, let’s remember what happened here. Park the cars, just for a little while. That’s the kind of ritual that could save a life.

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About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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