The Dust Bowl of the 1930s stands as the United States’ worst environmental disaster in history. Although cable news and the internet weren’t around to sensationalize the prolonged event, the Great Plains, and Southern Plains were devastated by the damage. The Dust Bowl had many causes and effects. Here are only a few of them.
1. Main cause: Farmers over planted and overgrazed their land for decades. They also failed to plant drought resistant crops, so when the drops died out, there was no way to hold the topsoil in place.
2. Great Depression: After years of bad practices, the Great Depression caused farmers to not be able to plant as many crops as usual. As such, many areas throughout the Plains were left barren even of protective grasses.
3. Drought catalyst: Drought conditions in several states — Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Nebraska — exposed poor land management when the soil blew away. The effects of the drought spread all the way to the Dakotas and affected agriculture all the way to Maine.
4. Homesteading laws: Plains farming boomed in the early 20th century after homesteading laws provided settlers with 640 acres of free land, courtesy of the feds. European demand for wheat fed this cycle.
5. Government seduction: Farming practices were out of control, no doubt. But the Department of Agriculture promoted the (bizarre?) idea that increased farming caused more rain to fall on the Plains.
6. The inevitable fall: Crop prices fell at the same time that the drought began. In desperation, farmers started planting even more crops, which only compounded the rate at which topsoil was destroyed.
7. Dust storms: Giant clouds of dirt (fueled by 30 mph winds) literally blew across the landscape, engulfing homes and even entire towns. Each year, the problem grew worse. In 1932, 14 dust storms were recorded. In 1932, the number jumped to 38.
8. Size and scope: The average 1930s dust storm carried more dirt than it would take to build two Panama Canals.
9. Death of livestock: Cattle were blinded and suffocated by the dust cloud. They were discovered with stomachs full of sand and dust.
10. Schools closed: Most students were sent home from school, lest they develop “dust pneumonia.” (7000 people lost their lives to this affliction.) In other cases, students stayed overnight at school when dust storms made conditions too dangerous to travel.
11. Black & white reality: The six states affected the most by the Dust Bowl were rendered into colors of black and white, ironically, just like the widely available photo medium of the 1930s.
12. Black Sunday: April 14, 1935 was the single worst day of the Dust Bowl. Winds reached 60 miles per hour and were most severe in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. These “black blizzards” caused day to turn into night.
13. Loss of livelihood: The Farmers not only watched their property blow away, but their jobs also disappeared as well. There was little left to do but pack up for the promised land.
14. Migration to California: Unemployment in the Great Depression was already a 1 in 4 statistic. Once farmers and their families showed up on the scene, unemployment in California (and other urban areas) grew even worse.
15. Hoovervilles: Some 200,000 migrant farmers relocated to California. Most of them did not find work. Those who did were chronically underpaid. The new population was forced to set up makeshift “towns” known as “Hoovervilles.”
16. Okies: Any and all migrant farmers were given the pejorative nickname “Okies” even though only about 20% of migrants actually hailed from Oklahoma. (See John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath for a fictionalized account of the resulting class discrimination.)
17. New Deal: Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs included new laws to help get back into business and heal the land. These laws included: (a) Agricultural Adjustment Act; (b) Civilian Conservation Corps; (c) Farm Security Administration; (d) Soil Conservation Services; and (e) Rural Electrification Act.