Tune in alert for PBS' 'The Dust Bowl,' the much-anticipated film by Ken Burns airing nationally on Sunday-Monday, November 18- 19, 2012, 8:00-10:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).
This man-made disaster killed and injured thousands, as Burns chronicles the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains.
American prairies became deserts as nature -aided by man's mistakes- unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that for many seemed to herald the end of the world. It was the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history.
The Dust Bowl was caused by a perfect storm of factors that all happened at the same time. The reasons for this disaster had been building up for at least a decade before the 1930s.
This area most affected was the Great Plains states, from the Rocky Mountains eastward to the high plains. The entire area was mainly covered in native grasses. These grasses had been there for thousands of years, keeping the soil healthy and in place.
Over-planting of crops during World War I combined with new technologies were developed that farmers used to churn the land even faster. The farmers didn’t rotate crops and they dug up everything and planted crops. The native grasses were now underneath and the soil on top.
According to historians, in 1931 there was a record wheat harvest, which depressed the price of the crop. In order to make payments on land and machinery on time and to make up for the lower price of wheat, farmers went int overdrive planting more and more which meant churning up the land further.
By the early 1930s the Great Depression had hit the country. And at this time a severe drought had started in the Great Plains. The rains didn’t come anymore as expected. Enter the "Dirty 30s."
The severe drought hit hardest in western Kansas, eastern Colorado, the Oklahoma panhandle and the Texas panhandle.
By the time 1937 arrived, a recorded 134 dust storms hit in just that year alone. These nightmares of pestilence (insects like centipedes came in swarms) and death were dubbed "black blizzards."
“The Dust Bowl was a heartbreaking tragedy in the enormous scale of human suffering it caused. But perhaps the biggest tragedy is that it was preventable,” said Burns.
“This was an ecosystem — a grassland — that had evolved over millions of years to adjust to the droughts, high winds and violent weather extremes so common to that part of the country. In the space of a few decades at the start of the 20th century, that grassland was uprooted in the middle of a frenzied wheat boom. When a drought returned, all that exposed soil took to the skies, and people worried that the breadbasket of the nation would become the next Sahara desert. If we show the same neglect to the limits of nature now as we did then, it is entirely possible that this could happen again.”
THE DUST BOWL will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Distribution: ShopPBS.org; 800-PLAY-PBS, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
'Dust Bowl' is a production of Florentine Films and WETA, Washington, DC. Director: Ken Burns; writer: Dayton Duncan; producers: Dayton Duncan, Ken Burns and Julie Dunfey; editors: Craig Mellish and Ryan Gifford; cinematography: Buddy Squires; voices: Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Conway, Amy Madigan and Carolyn McCormick; narrator: Peter Coyote.