Havoc as wild winds send thick clouds of swirling sand skyward in south, center

Sandstorm blamed for 4 deaths in Egypt; no major injuries reported in Israel, though weather creates hot mess, grounding flights and felling trees; temperatures to climb Friday

A sandstorm nears Eilat on June 1, 2023. (Yuval Sagi/ INPA; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law))
A sandstorm nears Eilat on June 1, 2023. (Yuval Sagi/ INPA; Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law))

Powerful winds kicked blinding clouds of sand and dust into the skies over Israel and the surrounding region Thursday, knocking down trees and cranes, grounding flights and forcing people with breathing problems to remain indoors.

The sandstorm was blamed for at least four deaths in Egypt, including in Cairo, where a billboard collapsed onto a major highway, killing one and injuring five.

No fatalities from the wild weather were reported in Israel, where sustained winds of over 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour) were recorded, with gusts as high as 100 kph (62 mph) in Ashkelon, according to the Israel Meteorological Service.

The high winds were helped by an intense heat wave that saw temperatures hit the high 30s Celsius Thursday (high 90s, low 100s Fahrenheit) and is expected to worsen Friday.

Pictures and videos of the squall showed massive billowing clouds of sand and dust looming over highways and cities in southern and central Israel after winds began to pick up in the afternoon.

Swirling sand continued to wreak havoc into the night, with a sandstorm in Eilat reportedly shutting operations at Ramon Airport.

Earlier, a heavy veil of sand descended over Ben Gurion International Airport, reducing visibility to near-zero even as planes attempted to taxi or take off.

In Herzliya, two cranes fell into each other at a construction site, causing significant damage but no injuries, the Walla news site reported. In Tel Aviv, a man required treatment for light injuries after being hit by a falling tree, the Magen David Adom rescue service said. A palm tree crushed a car with a woman in it in Hod Hasharon, Channel 12 reported, but she was not hurt.

The sand and wind also reduced visibility for drivers, sent garbage and trash cans whipping through city streets, and made breathing difficult for those with respiratory issues.

Authorities in Egypt had recommended those with health issues stay indoors ahead of the heavy sandstorms Thursday morning.

Aside from the billboard in Cairo, another crashing advertisement in a suburb of the capital killed a girl, a man was crushed to death by a falling date palm in the Nile delta and a boy fell from a fourth-story balcony while watching the storm in the Sinai and was killed, The National reported.

Footage from Cairo also showed cars driving the wrong way down a highway as they fled a hulking mountain of dust and sand floating toward them.

Authorities closed two ports along the Suez Canal on Thursday “due to bad weather conditions,” including intense winds and high waves accompanying the sandstorm.

Reduced visibility during a similar storm in 2021 led to the giant container ship Ever Given getting wedged diagonally across the Suez Canal, disrupting trade flows for nearly a week.

In Israel, winds are expected to die down a bit Friday but the air will remain dusty.

Sweltering temperatures are forecast to climb to 42C (107F) in the Tel Aviv area, and even hotter in some other parts of the country, with fire officials announcing a burn ban.

Thursday’s order from Fire and Rescue Commissioner Eyal Caspi bars the lighting of blazes in open areas throughout the country starting at 8 a.m. Friday morning until 11:59 p.m.

The KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund also put out a statement stressing to hikers that it’s forbidden to light fires in forested areas.

Over 170 fires broke out across Israel during a similar heatwave last weekend, which caused some damage but no injuries.

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