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The Dust Bowl


Shelterbelt Planting

Shelterbelt planting.

Photo: FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images
The Dust Bowl

Entire homes were covered by the dust, forcing people to leave their homes.

Photo: Arthur Rothstein/ Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection
The Dust Bowl

Dust storm refugees packed everything into their car, if they had one, and headed for California.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection

What Was the Dust Bowl?:

The Dust Bowl was an area in the Midwest that was severely affected by drought from 1931-1939. The drought killed crops that had previously kept the rich black soil in place. When winds blew, they raised enormous clouds of dust that deposited mounds of dirt on everything, even covering houses. Dust suffocated livestock and caused pneumonia in children. At times, dirt from the storms even reached Washington DC. The drought and dust destroyed a large part of agricultural production, worsening The Great Depression.

Exactly When and Where Did It Happen?:

In fact, there were four waves of droughts, one right after another: 1930–31, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. It felt like one drought, because the affected regions could not recover the next one hit. In 1932 fourteen dust storms were reported, with 48 the next year. The last drought didn't end until late fall of 1939. (Source: National Drought Mitigation Center, Drought in the Dust Bowl Years)

The Great Depression was well underway, and the resultant deflation aggravated the plight of Dust Bowl farmers, as prices for the crops they were able to grow were falling. In 1933, 6 million pigs were slaughtered to reduce supply and hopefully boost prices. The resultant public outcry over the waste led to the creation of the Federal government's Surplus Relief Corporation, to make sure excess farm output went to feed the poor.

On April 15, 1934 the worst dust storm occurred and was named "Black Sunday." Several weeks later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Soil Conservation Act to assist farmers in planting in a more sustainable way. (Source: PBS, Surviving the Dust Bowl)

Although the Dust Bowl affected the entire Midwest, the worst of it was concentrated in the Oklahoma panhandle. It also severely affected the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, the northeastern part of New Mexico, most of southeastern Colorado, and the western third of Kansas. By 1934, the droughts covered 75% of the country, severely affecting 27 states. (Source: National Drought Mitigation Center, The Dust Bowl)

How Did It Affect the Economy?:

The massive dust storms forced migrant farmers to lose their business, their livelihood and their homes. Families migrated to California or cities to find work that often didn't exist by the time they got there. Many ended up living as homeless “hobos” or in shantytowns called “Hoovervilles," named after then-President Herbert Hoover.

What Caused the Dust Bowl?:

The prairies of the Midwest were originally protected by tall prairie-grass, that held the topsoil in place during droughts. However, once the prairies were settled, farmers ploughed over the prairie grass. Years of over-cultivation meant there was no longer protection from the elements. When the drought killed off the crops, high winds blew the remaining topsoil away. The drought lasted for a decade. Parts of the Midwest still have not recovered. For more, see Cause of Dust Bowl.

Could the Dust Bowl Happen Again?:

The Dust Bowl could happen again. Agribusiness is draining the groundwater from the Midwest about eight times faster than rain is putting it back in. This area stretches from South Dakota to Texas and supplies about 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water. At this rate, the groundwater will be gone within the century, and parts of the Texas Panhandle will run dry this year.

Here is a great point made by Larry West, the About.com Guide to the Environment, "Ironically, the Ogallala Aquifer is not being depleted to feed American families or to support the kind of small farmers who hung on through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. Instead, the agricultural subsidies that began as part of the New Deal to help farm families stay on the land are now paid to corporate farms that grow crops we no longer need. As an example, water drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer is helping Texas farmers grow bumper crops of cotton, but there is no longer a U.S. market for cotton. So cotton growers in Texas receive $3 billion a year in federal subsidies, taxpayer money, to grow fiber that is shipped to China and made into cheap clothing that is sold in American stores. If the water runs out, we won't have the cotton or the inexpensive clothing, and the Great Plains will be the site of yet another environmental disaster." Article update May 13, 2013


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