Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Dust Bowl

What was the dust bowl?

The dust bowl was the most severe drought in U.S. history. In the spring of 1934, the country in the grips of the Great Depression, farmers across the Great Plains of the United States witnessed two great dust storms. First, in mid-April, after days of hot, dry weather and cloudless skies, 40-to 50-mile-per-hour winds picked up and took with them the dry soil, resulting in thick, heavy clouds. In Texas and Oklahoma, these dirt clouds engulfed the landscape. The next month was extremely hot, and on May 10 a second storm came up as the gales returned, this time creating a light brown fog.

On May 11 experts estimated that 12 million tons of soil fell on Chicago as the dust storm blew in off the Great Plains, and the same storm darkened the skies over Cleveland. On May 12 the dust clouds had reached the eastern seaboard. Between the two storms, 650 million tons of topsoil had blown off the plains.

The resulting dust bowl covered 300,000 square miles across New Mexico, eastern Colorado, Texas, western Oklahoma, and Kansas. The damage was great: Crops, principally wheat, were cut off at ground level or torn from their roots; cattle that ate dustladen grass eventually died from “mud balls”; dust drifted, creating banks against barns and houses, while families tried to keep it from penetrating the cracks and crevices of their homes by using wet blankets, oiled cloths, and tape, only to still have everything covered in grit. Vehicles and machinery were clogged with dirt. In addition to the farmers who died in the fields, suffocated by the storm, hundreds of people suffered from “dust pneumonia.”


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