The American Dust Bowl

Selected from: Delancey Place

In today’s encore excerpt – the American Dust Bowl, which lasted from 1930 to as late as 1940 in some areas. Rated the number one weather event of the twentieth century, the Dust Bowl covered one hundred million acres in parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, and left thousands dead, diseased and destitute: “The rains disappeared – not just for a season but for years on end. With no sod to hold the earth in place, the soil calcified and started to blow. Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains – a force of their own. When the dust fell, it penetrated everything: hair, nose, throat, kitchen, bedroom, water well. A scoop shovel was needed just to clean the house in the morning. The eeriest thing was the darkness. People tied themselves to ropes before going to a barn just a few hundred feet away, like a walk in space, tethered to the life support center. Chickens roosted in mid-afternoon. …“Many in the East did not believe the initial accounts of predatory dust until a storm in May 1934 carried the windblown shards of the Great Plains over much of the nation. In Chicago, twelve million tons of dust fell. New York, Washington – even ships at sea, three hundred miles off the Atlantic coast – were blanketed in brown. Cattle went blind and suffocated. When farmers cut them open, they found stomachs stuffed with fine sand. Horses ran madly against the storms. Children coughed and gagged, dying of something the doctors called ‘dust pneumonia.’ In desperation, some families gave away their children. The instinctive act of hugging a loved one or shaking someone’s hand could knock two people down, for the static electricity from the dusters was so strong. …

 

“By 1934, the soil was like fine-sifted flour, and the heat made it a danger to go outside many days. In Vinita, Oklahoma, the temperature soared above 100 degrees for thirty-five consecutive days. On the thirty- sixth day, it reached 117. …

“On the skin, the dust was like a nail file, a grit strong enough to hurt. People rubbed Vaseline in their nostrils as a filter. The Red Cross handed out respiratory masks to schools. Families put wet towels beneath their doors and covered their windows with bed sheets, fresh-dampened nightly. …

“Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, [was the] day of the worst duster of them all. The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day. … As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship’s prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed.”

Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time, Mariner, Copyright 2006 by Timothy Egan, pp. 5-8.

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Published in: on November 12, 2009 at 2:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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