The Human Story of a Man-Made Disaster

I remember driving in the south and southwest during the late 1950s and early 1960s on family vacations. We’d see rows and rows of tall, narrow trees (many probably being tower poplar) planted between fields. “Why did they do that?” I asked my parents. They were windbreaks, they told me, used to stop the soil from blowing away like it did in the great black, rainless storms of twenty-five years before.

I

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never quite understood why the Dust Bowl started and why it stopped–even after having read a full paragraph on them in my junior high history books! The answer becomes very clear in Timothy Egan’s compelling tale of two towns in the center of the Dust Bowl–Boise City, OK, and Dalhart, TX. He follows the boom and bust of a half dozen families from the turn of the century to the end of the Depression. The hardships they face were immense and largely man made.

A combination of hubris, ignorance, and greed led thousands of farmers (encouraged by misguided government policy and high wheat prices) to plow up 100 million acres of prairie grass that had taken ten to twenty thousand years to build up. They ignored weather records showing there was rarely enough rain to sustain wheat crops.

When prices fell and rainfall returned to the more common lower levels, the farms were abandoned. With no wheat or prairie grass to hold the soil, huge massive black storms–sometimes two miles high and hundreds of miles wide–turned day into night. On average, a storm hit every three days for years. Thousands died of what doctors called dust pneumonia.

More than once a gigantic storm escaped the Great Plains and dumped thousands of tons of dirt on Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. Once the mid-day sky went dark during a Congressional hearing on proposed solutions from the Roosevelt Administration. The New Deal got its money.

With

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that appropriation they planted dozens of varieties of trees, a hundred million of them. They also “retired” millions of acres of farmland, helped resettle farmers in other parts of the country, and taught those who remained conservation techniques to hold the soil. The result has been to reduce the size and frequency of storms, but not eliminate them. I was wrong. The dust storms never entirely stopped.

When drought conditions hit again in the 1950s, so did dust storms, which still continue. In June 2017 one storm caused six deaths in a 25-car pile up. When I drive through New Mexico each year, I see signs warning me to pull over when dust storms hit. Millions of acres remain destroyed and barren. Some estimates say it takes a thousand years to restore one inch of top soil in such regions.

Egan skillfully weaves together the human stories along with the stories of social, economic, political, and cultural forces that created this man-made ecological disaster. At the end I was ready to agree–of all the hard times experienced in the Depression, these were the worst.

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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