Friday 11 May 2012

Black Blizzard

On May 11, 1934, "dust lodged itself in the eyes and throats of weeping and coughing New Yorkers" who strolled down Madison Avenue.  Tourists on the observation deck of the Empire State Building could hardly see more than a wall of haze.  Darkness descended over the city at noon.  Was it local pollution?  No, for the same dust blew across Beacon Hill in Boston, Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. and Peachtree Street in Atlanta.  In fact, even ships 300 miles off the Eastern Seaboard had dust covering their decks.  The origin of the dust was 2000 miles away in an area which would soon become known as "The Dust Bowl".  On this day, Americans would endure the violent storm that would become a symbol of the Dirty Thirties, a black blizzard.

Back in the 1800's, the Great Plains were covered by prairie grass which the buffalo would graze on.  However, as pioneers pushed the frontier further west, they settled the land, and plowed the fields.  During World War I, the demand for wheat skyrocketed and by the 1920's, American wheat production increased by 300%, thanks in large part to the newly invented tractors. 

In 1931, the Great Plains was hit by a severe drought.  In 1932, fourteen dust storms raged across the prairies.  By 1933, the total number of storms had doubled to 28.  Although the dust storms decreased in number the following year, they increased in intensity.  As migrants from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico headed west to California to look for work picking fruit, the dust headed east.  Three hundred and fifty million tons of silt landed on major cities like New York, Boston and Atlanta. 

The great dust storm of May 11, 1934 was a reminder to the city dwellers that their country cousins were not fairing so well.  Hugh Bennett, a soil conservation advocate employed by the government, was in a meeting in Washington D.C. that day, pleading with United States Senators to support his plan to preserve the soil.  At first, he got little support; however, by midday, a massive wind whipped up and the sky turned black.  To rest his case, Mr. Bennett pointed out the window, saying:  "There goes Oklahoma!"  Finally, in 1935, President Roosevelt had federal regulations passed to ensure crop rotation, grass-seeding and new plowing methods be used by American farmers.  However, it would not be until the Fall of 1939, with the end of the drought, that America would find true relief.

Photo of dust storm in Oklahoma in the 1930's courtesy


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