What Was the Dust Bowl?

A dust storm photographed in Elkhart, Kansas in 1937.
A dust storm photographed in Elkhart, Kansas in 1937.

What Was the Dust Bowl?

The Dust Bowl, which is also referred to as the Dirty Thirties, was an era where a terrible wind blew dirty and loose sand wreaed havoc on society, agriculture, and the economy of Midwestern United States. At the time, the Midwest had already been devastated from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many historians consider the Dust Bowl to be the worst human-made disaster in the history of America. It was preceded by a period of extended drought and the over-cultivation in anticipation of a higher price for wheat. The farmers plowed up the prairie grasses that had been holding the soil together and sowed their wheat.

Cultivation and grazing on the US Plains resulted in the consistent and intensive damage of the prairie grasses leaving the ground bare. The winds blew across the plains, carrying clouds of dust in what was termed “black rollers” and piled up in homesteads and sifted down from ceilings, and got in through doors and windows cracks. It also resulted in zero visibility, the death of people and livestock, mass migration to cities, environmental damage, and a worsening of the Great Depression economy.

Human Displacement

As a result of the destruction of homes and the death of livestock in 1935, many families moved out from Texas, Colorado, Kansa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in search of work to feed their families and pay bills. It is estimated that 3.5 million people were forced out of the US Plains states to seek sheltering places in California with a record of 86,000 people migrating every year. The migration has been registered as the largest in the history of America. Some did not travel long distances; they just crossed to the next state or town. Many families moved to other places without their properties where they were subjected to discrimination, poor wages, and menial jobs.

Death of Humans and Livestock

It is not clear how many people died, but it is estimated to be anywhere from the hundreds to thousands. Many suffered from what was called “dust pneumonia” in which they developed chest pain and difficulty in breathing that resulted in death for some. The death occurred despite the effort put in by the Red Cross in distributing dust masks. However, the masks helped in reducing the mortality and preventing further complications. The dust left thousands of animals blind and suffocated a high percentage. Sand found its way into the animal's stomachs and caused their deaths. There is no official documentation of Great Plain's deaths either for human or livestock.

Economy Effects

The destruction of homes and other properties forced farmers out of their business and with the already devastated economy from Great Depression, the living standard of the families drastically worsened. The harvested crops fetched low prices and were not enough for subsistence use, consequently, the federal government established Surplus Relief Corporation to ensure that any excess produce was directed to feed the hungry and the poor population. In 1933, farmers had to slaughter at least 6 million pigs as a way of reducing the supply and in an effort to raise prices. By 1934, they had sold more than 10% of their farm products and livestock.

The tons of soil blown away by the wind left the land uncovered and infertile for decades. This erosion made it hard for farmers to continue farming leading to a decline in outputs both for human and livestock consumption. Due to prolonged effects, about 21% of families in Great Plains had to get support from the federal government. Therefore, the government was forced to overtax the people of California to raise enough money for relief materials and provision of health services to the migrants.

“Black Blizzards” Strike on New York, Washington, D.C.

The destructive dust storms from the Great Plains, nicknamed “Black Blizzards”, carried topsoil to the cities of New York, and Washington, D.C. The clouds of dust darkened the sky and sometimes settled on places in a snow-form manner, making removal difficult. Some amount of dust found its way into rooms through cracks coating furniture and skin and contaminating food. On May 11, 1934, a dust storm traveled about 2000 miles to the East Coast, damaging the U.S Capitol and Statue of Liberty monument.

Dust Bowl on “Black Sunday”

On April 14, 1935, a strong wind displaced approximately 300 million tons of soil from the Great Plains hitting the Oklahoma Panhandle and Northwestern Oklahoma first before moving south throughout the day. Many books have been written about this day and one of the authors working for New York Times wrote in “The Worst Hard Time” book, “The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day.”

The Depiction of the Dust Bowl in the Arts

The many effects of the Dust Bowl captured the imagination of artists, writers, and musicians in the USA. The author, John Steinbeck highlighted the plight of the migrants in his novel,” The Grapes of Wrath” where it depicted the devastating health and poor social conditions faced at the time.

USA Government Response

The USA government participation in land management was strengthened after the disaster. Soil conservation programs were put in place, and Soil Conservation Service was created to oversee the implementation. Immediately, after the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he took over the soil conservation programs and restored the environmental condition of the nation. It was under his leadership that more than 200 million trees were planted from Texas to Canada to act as wind breakers, hold soil in place, and retain water in the soil.

Government campaigns were launched to encourage farmers to use plowing and planting methods that preserved the integrity of the soil. These campaigns led to the education of farmers on soil conservation practices such as strip farming, terracing, contour plowing, and crop rotation. By 1938, the protection methods had yielded fruits, and the amount of soil blew away was reduced to 65%; however, the land remains infertile. A return of regular rainfall in 1938, ended the period of Dust Bowl but the government keeps encouraging farmers to continue practicing soil conservation methods to protect the Great Plains ecology.


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