Long before Hurricane Sandy (capital letters), there was hurricane sandy.
In light of the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the new Ken Burns documentary The Dust Bowl has even greater relevance.
Hurricane Sandy, of course, crushed parts of New York City, and has led to increased debate about whether man-made global warming is causing weather patterns to become more volatile and deadly.
With The Dust Bowl, however, there is no debate. It was the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history – to this point.
The Dust Bowl, which airs in two parts, Sunday, Nov. 18 and Monday, Nov. 19 on most PBS affiliates, chronicles the horrific and unique weather situation in the central United States in the 1930s (with the impact blowing north all the way to Canada and east all the way to the Atlantic coast). The weather conditions dove-tailed with the economic depression to create a giant storm of misery for both humans and animals.
A frenzied wheat boom had encouraged what became known as “the great plow-up,” with farmers in the Southern Plains feverishly plowing up hundreds and hundreds of miles of resilient “buffalo grass” that had been perfectly adapted for the area through centuries.
But when drought came, as it always does in a cyclical sense, there was an unprecedented effect: Black walls of dirt and dust in the air, damaging or even killing everything in their path.
“Conventional wisdom and shorthand history seem to always relegate the story of the Dust Bowl to just a handful of storms and an inevitable connection to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath,” said Burns, whose previous outstanding documentary series include Prohibition, Jazz, Baseball and The Civil War.
“We quickly discovered, however, a much more complex, tragic and interesting story that continues to resonate today. This is a cautionary tale rather than (an) inspirational story. But it still is a story of our complex and often fraught relationship with the land.”
The Dust Bowl features interviews with 26 survivors of those hard times, combined with stunning photographs and seldom-seen movie footage.
“More than any other film we have made, (this) is an oral history populated less by historians and experts than those who survived those horrible days,” Burns said. “They are at the end of their own lives now, but they were children and teenagers then, their searing memories as raw and direct as if this had all happened yesterday.
“What they were witnessing is unparalleled in American history, and yet their perspective is resolutely personal and intimate. Through a child’s eyes, they watched as their parents’ world collapsed, watched as their farms were lost and their own siblings died of the merciless dust pneumonia.
“Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president, desperately tried to find a way to save the region, an area once called No Man’s Land that includes devastated counties in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas and parts of southeastern Colorado, northwestern Kansas and northeastern New Mexico. He was able to swipe his finger on his desk in the White House and come up with Oklahoma.”
All they were was dust in the wind.