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Drought Evokes Memories of 1930s Dust Bowl

It's not often that weather forecasters say that a hurricane would offer welcome relief to a region. But as Texas, Oklahoma and much of the South endure record-breaking drought, some weather forecasters have speculated that a hurricane is the best hope that region has for breaking the dry heat and avoiding devastation on the level of the 1930s Dust Bowl. While that region of the country often endures long dry spells, the drought in Texas was just declared the second-worst in the state's history. (The worst lasted seven years, from 1950-57.) This has some farmers selling off or slaughtering cattle, while other farmers journey hundreds of miles north in search of grass to feed their livestock.

This drought is being blamed largely on a strong La Niña weather pattern, a problem that may persist through the fall. But in the 1930s, it wasn't just a natural weather phenomenon that gripped the heart of the nation, it was an extended dry spell coupled with poor farming practices and misuse of land that turned much of the Great Plains into what would come to be known as the Dust Bowl.

From 1931-39, "black blizzards" swept across the plains, choking livestock and driving many families west -- a migration immortalized in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Those who stayed behind endured eight years of drought, and left behind legacies of great persistence and great heartbreak. But their story was brought to a conclusion by two things: rain (of course), and drastically improved farming practices.

The drought of the 1930s prompted the creation of federal conservation programs -- carried out largely by FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps -- that changed the farming methods used across the country. From the late-1930s on, farmers would employ crop rotation, contour plowing, strip plowing, and the planting of "shelter belts" of trees. Like many great advances, these were born out of great devastation.

With those updated farming practices already in use, today's farmers in Texas and across the South can do little but wait, watch the skies, and hope for rain.

Originally produced in 1997, Surviving the Dust Bowl remains one of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE's most popular websites. The full film is currently available streaming online.



Lauren Prestileo is a project manager for American Experience. 

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