In the 1930s, the Great Plains of the United States had a bad drought. But it wasn’t drought that turned these grasslands into the Dust Bowl. The worst environmental disaster in the history of our nation was caused by man.
Most folks that lived in the Great Plains in the 30s moved there to take advantage of cheap farmland the government offered. Washington wanted wheat and the Plains were grasslands; it seemed to make sense.
The problem was that wheat has a short root system. The hardy prairie grass that the farmers tore out had roots several inches deep, allowing the plant to hang onto the soil when the heavy Plains winds blew as they had for thousands of years. It wasn’t so much a problem of the wheat blowing away, it was that the wheat wasn’t strong enough to keep the topsoil from the mouth of that hungry wind.
Only about an inch of topsoil sat on hardpan earth. Plows mixed topsoil in with hard dirt or red clay, in the case of Oklahoma. At first, the wheat yields were plentiful. More farmers moved to the Plains to cash in on these verdant fields. But then, in 1931, the rain stopped, the wheat withered, and the wind picked up. With no prairie grass to hold it down, the wind ripped all the topsoil away in hours.
Still, farmers continued to plow. Every storm thereafter licked layer after layer of dusty earth up, shifting it miles away. Farmers didn’t understand it. The last drought decades earlier didn’t cause dust storms. This was unprecedented. And what with the Great Depression going on, nobody in Washington, D.C. cared.
What was it like to be in a dust storm? In the short excerpt above from Pare Lorenz’s silent film, “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” watch carefully as the first eddies spin on the parched ground. In the distance, a horse begins to fade slightly in the oncoming dust and at 0:41, he turns and starts sprinting for home. At 1:14, dust works its way beneath a closed window. Dust like sand drifts cover the floor of a home; it billows in the sky like roiling storm clouds. By 2:06, the world is a gray blur. This is the front edge of the dust storm as it rolls over the camera. Suddenly, the sun’s eye becomes clear to us for a moment before it is winked out by the blackout storm.
Dust drove into every crevice of a prairie house, covering everything inside with a thin film. It invaded humans as well. The kids bundled up in this photo aren’t dressed up for Halloween; they’re about to walk to school. Parents cobbled hazmat suits out of whatever was in the house to protect their children from blowing dust.
A disease mysterious to many in the Plains at the time was “dust pneumonia.” Hundreds or perhaps thousands of people died from it (poor record keeping leaves the number unclear). People often coughed up clods of dirt up to four inches long and pencil-thick. The disease wasn’t pneumonia; dust clogged a patient’s lungs and killed them.