Dust Bowl days still linger - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 1:30 am / Updated at 1:25 am
Dust Bowl days still linger
The Dust Bowl
What: A two-part, four-hour documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns on PBS.

NET: Sunday, 7 p.m. CST, and Wednesday, 8 p.m. CST.

Iowa Public Television: Sunday, 7 p.m., and Monday, 7 p.m.

Check out Nancy's Almanac

This year is Nebraska's driest on record. Nancy's Almanac, Omaha.com/Nancy

The Dust Bowl changed the kitchen routine after meals at the Baldwin house on North Main Street in Ainsworth, Neb.

After washing dishes with water heated on a cast-iron stove, Elsie Baldwin set them to dry on a drain board before returning them to the kitchen's small drop-leaf table and placing them upside down.

The glasses and crockery ware were clean and ready to be turned right-side up for the next meal.

If the dishes were stored in the kitchen's floor-to-ceiling cupboard, there was a good chance that a layer of dust — which seemed to always hang in the north-central Nebraska community's air — would coat them within hours.

It's been eight decades since the severe dust storms that roiled up out of the Great Plains during the 1930s gave a name and identity to a decade of depression, drought and despair.

The Dust Bowl was the largest man-made natural disaster in history. It was both an era and an area.

Geographers define it as an area of drought and severe wind erosion centered in a bowl-shaped, five-state region of the southern plains shared by Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. But the northern plains of Nebraska, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Montana also shared the misery.

The Baldwins draped damp sheets over windows in their house to trap infiltrating dirt. If sheets turned black, they knew dirt had drifted south from the Dakotas. If they were red, the dirt had come north from Oklahoma.

Georgia Baldwin Miller's memories of her mother's daily battle with dust were rekindled by a conference in Ainsworth last summer on the Dirty Thirties in the Sand Hills and filmmaker Ken Burns' new documentary, “The Dust Bowl.” The two-part film debuts Sunday on PBS.

Miller, 94, said Nebraska's Sand Hills region wasn't the grassland oasis it is today. Around Ainsworth during the 1930s, thin patches of short grass and brush clung to a landscape dotted with blowouts of white sand where the wind carved into hillsides.

“There seemed to be sand in the air all the time,” Miller said. “It was miserable.”

Burns' documentary depicts how human blindness to the balance of nature destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains throughout the decade as prairies were turned into deserts and massive deadly dust storms took the lives and hopes of many Americans.

Amid the tragedy, however, most families found ways to survive and government agencies and farmers worked together to develop new farming and conservation methods.

Drought and dust storms are part of the natural Great Plains climate. The people of the Plains are living through a drought today. The intensity of the dry times that gripped Nebraska during the growing season this year was worse than any single year during the Dust Bowl era.

Nebraska had record-setting dryness from January through October. Omaha recorded its hottest summer this year. Iowa's summer was the second driest and 10th warmest.

And less than four weeks ago, hurricane-force winds swept across the plains, fanning wildfires, spawning tornadoes and stirring up a dust cloud — visible from space — stretching from Nebraska to Oklahoma.

But the Dust Bowl was man-made. Rapid expansion of wheat production in the fragile plains following World War I destroyed native grasslands that protected the soil. Drought ruined the wheat crop of 1931, exposing farmland to winds that lifted the soil and plagued the region with the first big dust storms of the decade.

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's National Drought Mitigation Center, said Nebraskans got a taste this summer of what living through the 1930s drought might have been like.

It was at least as hot and dry this summer as the Dust Bowl years, but widespread use of air conditioning mitigated the impact for most people — and the current drought is less than a year old, he said.

“During the 1930s, they saw persistently high temperatures for a decade,” Svoboda said.

Today's drought is providing a peek at what droughts of the future might look like, he said. High temperatures and dry weather this summer created water-supply issues within six months. They didn't take years to evolve.

“That was not expected,” Svoboda said of the quick water-supply troubles. “We've made changes (in farming and conservation practices) and have a better handle on things, but we're not immune. We have more people and more demand on water. We're not drought-proof.”

Gerry Osborn of Ainsworth has the numbers to prove it.

Osborn, 83, is a volunteer National Weather Service observer who remembers dirt clouds blowing into his hometown from the south that obscured the town like a fog during the 1930s.

“It just seeped in on everything,” he said. “It even got into boxes of dry cereal.”

This dry year in Nebraska is challenging the worst of the Dust Bowl era for lack of rain and snow.

In fact, the Dust Bowl years were wet compared to 2012 in Ainsworth. Less than 10 inches of precipitation has fallen there so far this year. The annual norm is 23 inches. During the dry years of 1933-44, Ainsworth recorded rainfall ranging from 11.8 inches to 22 inches.

The driest year in more than a century of Ainsworth records was 1989 when precipitation bottomed out at 9.53 inches.

Still, the multi-year drought of the 1930s remains the benchmark of hard times.

It's too early to put the current drought into proper historical perspective because it's not over, Svoboda said. The drought is deep and damaging. It burned out many non-irrigated cornfields and forced cattlemen to thin their herds because of a lack of prairie grass. It could damage the Sand Hills and other fragile landscapes if it lingered too many years, Svoboda said.

“Some studies say droughts may not be lasting as long, that we're seeing hard-hitting, flash droughts,” Svoboda said. “Let's hope so. We don't want a 2012 drought four out of five years.”

Variable and random droughts are part of the plains.

“Mother Nature holds all the cards.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1127, david.hendee@owh.com

Contact the writer: David Hendee

david.hendee@owh.com    |   402-444-1127

David covers a variety of news across Nebraska, particularly natural resources and rural issues and the State Game and Parks Commission.

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