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The Dust Bowl wasn’t a football game (interesting sidenotes to the worst natural disaster in American history)

January 7, 2010

I’m a big fan of the History Channel.  The other day I caught a show called “Black Blizzard” about the dust bowl crisis in the 1930’s.  I knew it was a bad time.  I read Grapes of Wrath.  But I didn’t really grasp the severity of the situation.  I also didn’t realize that it was completely man-made. You see, the government was trying to push settlers out west.  They convinced enough people to move that direction for farming opportunities that the end result was one of the worst “natural” disasters this country has ever seen.  

Ahh... paradise

The farmers essentially stripped millions of acres of native buffalo grass to plant their crops.  The fact that some of the dryest and windiest conditions ever recorded didn’t help either.  What resulted was tens of millions of tons of top soil was blown right off the land, with most of it ending up somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.  The farmers couldn’t grow anything and the dust bowl was created.  Here are some things you may not know about that time. 

Out of sight, out of mind 

Years went by before the government really did something to help out.  Most of the reason was that many officials didn’t realize the situation.  This was obviously long before mass media, so it wasn’t a hot topic in Washington at the time.  They knew there were drought conditions, but that was about it.  President Roosevelt initiated some legislation to help out the farmers, but it wasn’t enough.  And then “Black Sunday” hit on April 14, 1935. 


Hugh Bennett of the Department of Agriculture had been waiting for this day.  He had been trying to get Congress to do something about it and was also the first to declare that this disaster was mostly man-made.  When this dust storm hit, he scheduled a speech in front of Congress.  While he was giving the speech, he continued to stall as assistants gave updates on where the dust was.  As he was wrapping up his speech, the windows outside the capitol building went dark from the dust.  Congress now saw what was happening and that it was real, and immediately sprung into action. 


Dry, windy conditions mixed with dust and metal is bad.  I’ve gotten used to testing the door handle of my car when the Santa Ana winds are blowing.  I know that inevitably I will be shocked.  In the dust bowl, it was like the static electricity you can generate from rubbing your feet on the carpet…  multiplied by about a thousand times. 

There were a lot of bad hair days back then

There were many reports of people being shocked unconscious when they touched their cars or farming equipment. 

Spiders, centipedes, and bunnies… oh my! 

When an area gets as dry as the dust bowl did, insects need to find water and food somewhere.  Their best bet was finding the nearest structure.  With millions of insects per square mile, this became a problem.  Large, poisonous spiders were plentiful in beds and shoes, making life a little more exciting doing routine things.  But the worst may have been the centipedes.  There were reports that people were sweeping up bucketfuls of these insects at a time. 

How would you like to find one of these in your kitchen? How about 1,000 of them?

Then there were the rabbits.  With predators driven off by the drought or simply starved out, the rabbits, well… they multiplied like rabbits. 

And this is just one family...

There ended up being so many of the animals that you could see nothing but ears for miles.  No one was really sure how they were able to survive in such numbers with so little food and water, other than they lived just long enough to have their 25 babies.  The locals would hold massive rabbit-killing drives, clubbing every rabbit they could reach.  It barely put a dent in the plague-like population. 

It may be hazardous for your breath 

During most of the dust bowl era, mini dust storms (called “dusters”) were constantly blowing around the area.  There was pretty much a constant layer of dust in the air.  This made it very hazardous to breathe.  And it wasn’t any different indoors, since many homes didn’t have windows.  Many had to construct makeshift masks to protect themselves from this.  Inhaling too much dust would result in similar symptoms to the “black lung” that coal miners were often diagnosed with. 

If you're going to stand out there, you might as well start smoking cigarettes and huffing paint as well!

Dust is also bad on the eyes.  One of the most extreme examples of this occurred on Black Sunday.  A man was walking home when he was hit by the dust storm.  He was still miles from his destination and had no place to seek shelter.  He was found the next day by his family.  Although he was alive, there was a thick black crust over his eyes.  He would never see again. 

These are just a few of the issues that people had to put up with, and these were relatively minor issues at that.  It was obviously a bad time in American history.  The problem is that the rest of the world may not have learned from this.  Aggressive farming techniques being used in China, South America, and Africa have created conditions that seem to mirror what happened in the 1930’s.  

This is the one in China in 2004. It's worse now.

We could very well be seeing a repeat of these conditions.  If that is the case, we can only be hopeful that they can alter their ways before they have a full-blown dust bowl on their hands as well.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. heidi permalink
    January 7, 2010 1:14 pm

    You’re looking at the same issue with the drought in california as well. There are millions of acres of dry fields out there, just waiting for a strong breeze…

  2. tony permalink
    January 7, 2010 2:57 pm

    If I remember correctly, it had a lot to do with the farming techniques of the time. I guess they used to sort of scrape up the top several inches of earth, and that practice isn’t really used because of what happened.

  3. February 13, 2010 6:59 am

    That was really a neat article. Thanks for that man!

  4. October 15, 2014 10:35 am

    It’s really a great and useful piece of information.
    I am happy that you just shared this helpful information with us.
    Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  5. jamie permalink
    October 4, 2016 10:04 am


  6. Roger Brandt permalink
    December 4, 2017 5:50 am

    And here we think we have it bad because our wifi is slow, those people were tough, what have we become.


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