On this day in 1997, a sandstorm sweeps across much of Egypt, causing widespread damage and killing 12 people. Most of the casualties were victims of the strong winds, which also toppled trees and buildings.
The storm began in Libya and blew swiftly northeast across nearly the entire nation of Egypt. The 60-mile-per-hour winds caused car accidents, uprooted trees and downed power lines. The sky initially turned an eerie white color from all the sand flying in the air. As the low atmosphere became saturated with sand, the sun was blotted out and it became dark in the middle of the day. Such a storm is called khamaseen, an Arabic word meaning fifty, in the region because that is how many days such spring storms have been known to last. These sandy storms are also known for causing people and animals to suffocate, though there were no human deaths recorded due to suffocation during this May 1997 storm. In the southern part of the Sahara desert on this same day, a separate storm caused an accident that killed 36 passengers on a truck.
Sand and dust storms occur with some regularity on the third of the earth’s land surface that is arid. Dust storms occur when drought conditions dry the topsoil and make it vulnerable to high winds. The so-called dust devil storm acts like a tornado in reverse; swirling winds send dust and sand hundreds of feet in the air.
Dust and sand storms happen most frequently in the Mexico City area and in Kazakhstan. Amarillo, Texas, and the entire panhandle region suffered through 38 days of massive dust storms in 1935. In an 1895 storm in Colorado, 20 percent of the region’s cattle died from suffocation.