When the Skies Filled With Dust

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters To The Editor - Ge­orge F. Will

“The soil is the one in­de­struc­tible, im­mutable as­set that the na­tion pos­sesses. It is the one re­source that can­not be ex­hausted.”

— Fed­eral Bureau of Soils, 1878

Seventy-five years ago, Amer­ica’s south­ern plains were learn­ing oth­er­wise. To­day, amid warn­ings of en­vi­ron­men­tal apoc­a­lypse, it is well to re­call the real thing. It is a story about the un­in­tended con­se­quences of tech­no­log­i­cal progress and of gov­ern­ment poli­cies. Above all, it is an epic of hu­man en­durance.

Who knew that when the Turks closed the Dar­danelles dur­ing World War I, it would con­trib­ute to strip­ping the top­soil off vast por­tions of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas? The clos­ing cut Europe off from Rus­sian grain. That in­creased de­mand for U.S. wheat. When Amer­ica en­tered the con­flict, Wash­ing­ton ex­horted farm­ers to pro­duce even more wheat and guar­an­teed a price of $2 a bushel, more than dou­ble the 1910 price. A wheat bub­ble was born. It would burst with calami­tous con­se­quences re­counted in Ti­mothy Egan’s as­ton­ish­ing and mov­ing book “The Worst Hard Time: The Un­told Story of Those Who Sur­vived the Great Amer­i­can Dust Bowl.”

Af­ter the war, the price plunged, and farm­ers, in­creas­ingly equipped with trac­tors, re­sponded by break­ing up more prairie, plow­ing un­der ever more grass­land in des­per­ate at­tempts to com­pen­sate for fall­ing wheat prices with in­creased vol­ume. That, how­ever, put ad­di­tional down­ward pres­sure on the price, which was 40 cents a bushel by 1930.

The late 1920s had been wet years, and peo­ple as­sumed that the cli­mate had changed per­ma­nently for the bet­ter. In that decade, an ad­di­tional 5.2 mil­lion acres — greater than two Yel­low­stone Parks — were added to the 20 mil­lion acres in cul­ti­va­tion. Be­fore the rains stopped, 50,000 acres a day were be­ing stripped of grasses that held the soil when the winds came sweep­ing down the plain.

In 1931, the na­tional har­vest was 250 mil­lion bushels, per­haps the great­est agri­cul­tural ac­com­plish­ment in his­tory. But Egan notes that it was ac­com­plished by re­mov­ing prairie grass, “a web of peren­nial species evolved over 20,000 years or more.” Amer­i­cans were about to see how an inch of top­soil pro­duced over mil­len­nia could be blown away in an hour.

On Jan. 21, 1932, a cloud ex­tend­ing 10,000 feet from ground to top — a black bliz­zard with, Egan writes, “an edge like steel wool” — looked like “a range of moun­tains on the move” as it grazed Amar­illo, Tex., head­ing to­ward Oklahoma. At the end of 1931, a sur­vey found that of the 16 mil­lion acres cul­ti­vated in Oklahoma, 13 mil­lion were se­ri­ously eroded.

On May 10, 1934, a col­lec­tion of dust storms moved over the Mid­west car­ry­ing, Egan says, “three tons of dust for ev­ery Amer­i­can alive.” It dumped 6,000 tons on Chicago that night. By morn­ing, the storm was 1,800 miles wide — “a great rec­tan­gle of dust” weigh­ing 350 mil­lion tons — and was de­posit­ing the sur­face of the Great Plains on New York City, where com­merce stopped in the semi-dark­ness.

On the south­ern plains, dust par­ti­cles, one-fifth the size of the pe­riod at the end of this sen­tence and high in sil­ica con­tent, pen­e­trated lungs, jeop­ar­diz­ing new­borns and caus­ing “dust pneu­mo­nia” in oth­ers. Houses were so por­ous that the only white part of a pil­low in the morn­ing was the profile of the sleeper. Storms in March and April 1935 dumped 4.7 tons of dust per acre on west­ern Kansas, dent­ing the tops of cars. Dur­ing one storm, the wind blew at least 40 mph for 100 hours. Egan re­ports that it would have re­quired a line of trucks 96 miles long, haul­ing 10 loads a day for a year — 46 mil­lion truck­loads — to trans­port the dirt that had blown from west­ern to east­ern Kansas.

In Wash­ing­ton, in a Se­nate hear­ing room, a man was tes­ti­fy­ing to bored leg­is­la­tors about the need for fed­eral aid for the south­ern plains. A sen­a­tor sud­denly ex­claimed, “It’s get­ting dark out­side.” The sun van­ished, and the air turned cop­per-color, thanks to red dust that the weather bureau said came from the west­ern end of Oklahoma’s pan­han­dle. The aid was ap­proved the next day.

The south­ern plains got what Egan calls fren­zied skies of grasshop­pers — some­times 14 mil­lion per square mile — be­cause the in­sects’ nat­u­ral preda­tors were gone. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, rain fell on the con­vulsed land and on the tena­cious peo­ple who never left it, and the gov­ern­ment de­vised soil con­ser­va­tion mea­sures. The earth turned out to be more durable, and the peo­ple who wrested their liv­ings from it more re­silient, than had been thought.

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