Darkened midday skies, handkerchiefs over faces and drifts of soil covering houses and machinery — extreme drought conditions, poor farming techniques and a lack of vegetation provided the perfect setting for one of the nation's most noted natural disasters from the mid-1930s.
A two-part, four-hour PBS documentary “The Dust Bowl” by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns makes its debut at 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday on OETA-13.
The film offers an account of the environmental catastrophe that destroyed farmlands of the Great Plains during the 1930s, a convergence of bad luck and poor planning that created “the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history,” Burns said in an interview with The Oklahoman.
Farmers overworked their fields, replacing the native deep-rooted grasses with shallower crops, and did little to stop wind erosion. A years-long drought parched the soil.
The wind-fueled dust storms swept the loose earth from the Southern Plains toward the East Coast and out into the Atlantic Ocean.
“There was a moment after several storms when FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) in the White House in Washington, D.C., could move his index finger across his desk in the Oval Office and pick up Oklahoma on his fingertips,” Burns said.
The hub of the disaster was Boise City in Cimarron County, the westernmost county in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Neighboring areas — the Texas Panhandle, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico — also were among the hardest hit.
The massive dust storms peaked on April 14, 1935, a day that became known as Black Sunday. Towering columns of dust choked out the daylight, reducing visibility to a few feet in areas throughout the Dust Bowl.
“The Dust Bowl” features interviews with 26 survivors, the observations of two women who left behind written accounts, seldom-seen movie footage, previously unpublished photographs and music by Woody Guthrie.
“Unlike any other story that we've told,” Burns said, “this is almost completely a bottom-up story, told by the folks who experienced it, their own memories. That's what makes this particularly special for us.”
Staff writer Ken Raymond contributed to this story.