Monsoon Special 2013: Dust storms create dangerous threat for Arizona


by Kim Quintero

Bio | Email | Follow: @kimquintero

Posted on June 5, 2013 at 4:28 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 5 at 4:28 PM

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. -- A prime target for dust storms during Arizona’s monsoon season is along Interstate 10 near Casa Grande, according to meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in Phoenix.

For drivers who travel the main artery from Phoenix to Tucson, summer months can pose a big safety threat. In the blink of an eye, winds can kick up blinding dust from wide open fields that surround this thoroughfare.

Sadly, Casa Grande residents Sandie and Mark Eide know the tragic consequences firsthand.

“Life before and after, there is no after to it,” said Mark Eide.

“You wake up in the morning at it's the first thing that hits you. You go to bed at night and it's the last thing you think about,” said Sandie Eide.

In 2009, their 16-year-old daughter Katie set off on a drive with her 15-year-old brother Zack from their home in Casa Grande . Katie was taking Zack to meet a friend at the Dairy Queen in Picacho Peak. They'd travel a stretch of I-10.

“It was a sunny clear day, had a little breeze,” said Mark Eide.

Twenty minutes after the teens left, the breeze picked up, dust swirled into the air, and the siblings were caught in zero visibility, which set off a chain reaction crash. Twenty-two cars were involved in the pile up. Three people were killed. Katie and Zack were among the dead.

“I'm so sorry I couldn't protect them. I love them more than anything in this world,” said Sandie Eide.

 “The challenge that we face is that we can't control Mother Nature,” said Doug Nintzel, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Transportation.

According to data from the ADOT, on average, five people per year die of dust storm related crashes.

At the Traffic Operations Center in Phoenix, operators are constantly trying to stay ahead of dust storms, but even with all the technology available, Nintzel said it's rare to shut down interstates.

“It's hard for DPS to say we need to close this highway. It's hard for ADOT to predict something like that, so that is a real big challenge for us,” said Nintzel.

Summer dust storms are usually brief, at times lasting no more than 30 minutes to an hour.

“Then you'd have crews scrambling to try to put barriers on ramps to keep traffic from coming on and off, and it would be quite the operation,” said Nintzel.

Instead, Nintzel said the goal is to get information to drivers using tools like overhead message boards, social media, and the travel hotline 511. Nintzel said the hope is that drivers will heed the messages and be proactive.

 “If you have any inclining that something's coming, put off whatever you have to do, just stay home. Especially when you know, monsoon season, 3 pm, it always clouds up, the wind always blows in the afternoon and the dust comes in,” said Mark Eide.

“As soon as somebody is reporting it's coming, stay home,” said Sandy Eide.

If you find yourself approaching a dust storm, ADOT advises to pull off the pavement and onto the shoulder, turn off your lights, take your foot off the brake pedal, keep your seatbelt on, stay with your vehicle and wait out the storm until it passes.