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WEATHER HISTORY SPECIAL: Outlining the Dust Bowl

An introduction into some of the most wild weather of the 1930s in Nebraska
Posted at 1:19 AM, Feb 19, 2023

THREE PILLARS OF DISASTER

Human
Since the latter half of the 19th century, Americans began settling in the Great Plains of America. The population of Nebraska boomed from below 100k in 1860 to over 1 million by 1890. Although the settlement was less in the region traditionally known as the dust bowl, that is west KS and the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, the region still experienced a significant growth in population. Although there was not much visually, those that moved to the heartland were lured by promises of agricultural riches in the region.

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The region in brown is the primary location of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s

Those dreams became reality for some in 1914 when World War I broke out in Europe. Over the next years, European crops failed as fields were destroyed in the conflict. Needing another source of grain, Europe looked to the United States for agricultural help. Farmers across the Great Plains began to cultivate land at rates never before seen to keep up with demand. This grain boom of the 1910s sowed the seeds for disaster down the road. Many farmers implemented methods of deep plowing on their fields, which stripped much of the native grasses away and left a layer of topsoil behind, now loose by the lack of grass holding it together. The losses of the grasses increased soil erosion, meaning in droughts the dried-up loose soil could be carried away by the wind. To keep up with the increased demand, farmers also began ignoring soil conservation practices, and pushed into poorer farmland to cultivate. All of this would eventually lead to increased soil erosion, crop failures, and when the droughts hit widespread suffering for many.

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Increased mechanization of farming, outdated practices, and using poor fields would all contribute to the dust bowl when the drought occurred.

Economic
By the 1920s, the golden years of the grain demand began to wane as the war ended in Europe. Prices began to sink as demand dropped for grain, and farms began to feel the pinch. Many farms were subsidized by the federal government during the war years, allowing many farms to purchase farm equipment to keep up with demand, but once the subsidies ended debt began rising for many farms. Banks soon foreclosed farms across the Plains from those who fell short of paying debts. It is often said that farmers felt the Great Depression before the Great Depression set in. The stock market crash of 1929 brought about the Great Depression. As people and governments grappled with the severity of the depression, the price of grain skyrocketed as demand crashed to all-time lows.

Enviornmental
The environment of the great Plains can be divided into two regions based on its environment. The eastern Great Plains are more humid and wet, with eastern Nebraska seeing an average of nearly 30" of precipitation a year. Contrast that to the western Great Plains, which contain a semi-arid climate, where less than 20" of precipitation a year falls. With numbers like those, it was imperative for soil erosion to not occur, as the region often undergoes periods of drought. The settlers at the time believed that their farming practices could bring rain, and the generally wet 1920s were a sign of this.

Then the dry spell came, the 1930s would be one of the driest periods in the Great plains in its history. For Omaha, only 1931 and 1932 had above average rainfall. 1934 was the driest year in Omaha with only 14.9" of rain. Although the drought was not a constant feature of the 1930s, it did strike hard in 1930-1931, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. The soil which was loose from the deep plowing was now picked up by the constant wind, with the fine particles of dust being deposited across thousands of square miles.

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A graph of the rainfall in Omaha through the 1930s, many years were exceptionally dry being in the bottom 10 driest years on record.

THE DUST STORMS

Although the core of the dust storm occurred southwest of Nebraska, the state still did not get away from the "black blizzards" as they were called. Although the big, state-wide sweeping clouds of dust are the most memorable, the real impact was the daily clouds of dust that swept over the state. Almost daily, any gust of wind would send a cloud of dust into the air, and into the mouths of anyone breathing in when it came. Dust managed to get into any crevice, even in homes that were securely built. Food and drink tasted like dust, there were days when the sun was clouded by a tinge of brown. This was the daily life of many in Nebraska and the rest of the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl.

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Dust covering a farm in South Dakota in 1936

Despite the daily occurrences of the dust, there were major dust storms which blackened the sky, sent whole towns fleeing for shelter, and left everything in its wake in a coating of dust. The first of the three major dust storms to impact Nebraska were November 11, 1933, when a major dust storm originated in South Dakota and swept southeast into Nebraska. People in Omaha woke up the next morning with a coating of dust on everything, even inside their homes, as winds reached over 50mph at times. The second major dust storm began on May 11, 1934, when dust from Texas to Nebraska was picked up and hoisted over much of the eastern United States. Dust was covered in New York City, and even ships in the Atlantic Ocean reported dusty sights well removed from the Great Plains.

By far the largest and most infamous dust storm of the entire Dust Bowl years occurred on April 14, 1935, a dust storm so massive it was deemed Black Sunday. The dust began with a cold front driving southward from the Dakota, picking up dust in drought-stricken regions in Nebraska first. Hastings was covered by a coating of dust as the 50mph winds drove the dust into Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The dust cloud was so expansive it completely blocked out the sun in many places as it passed. The dust storm lasted for several hours, visibility dropped down to zero, you could not even see your hand in front of your face at times. Black Sunday was the capstone of the dust storm, "Everybody remembered where they were on Black Sunday. For people on the southern plains, it was one of those defining experiences, like Pearl Harbor or Kennedy's assassination." Said University of Iowa history professor Pamela Riney-Kherberg in an interview about Black Sunday.

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The cloud of dust approaches a Texas town, the cloud hung over the city for several hours.

Through 1936 into 1940, dust storms continued to plague the region. Many people experienced raspatory ailments for many years after the rains came and the dust settled. Many living in the great plains fled to other areas, most famously to California. "Okies" as they were called have gained a famous legacy in history, perhaps best known in the classic novel "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck.

THE OTHER HAZARDS IN NEBRASKA

While dust might be the best known of the 1930s, Nebraska faced a variety of extreme weather outside of the enduring droughts. Sometimes the rains did come, and when they did, they brought with them other major hazards. The 1930s are also known in Nebraska for these significant events. Many of these events briefly outlined will eventually have full This Week in WX History segments dedicated to them, and when they do they will be linked here.

Tornadoes
Before the main drought set in, 1930 was an extremely active year for tornadoes in Nebraska. On May 1, 1930, an F-4 tornado struck Tekamah destroying over 40 homes and killing 4 people. Five days later, a tornado outbreak brought several tornadoes to central NE, one of which narrowly missing the town of Greeley north of Grand Island. Finally, three days later an F-3 tornado struck Minden, south of Kearney. Another F-3 hit Hastings, killing one person.

On May 23, 1933, an F-5 tornado moved due north through the sand hills, narrowly missing the small town of Tryon. This large tornado wiped entire homes away. Unfortunately, one home lost six family members as the tornado hit. This is one of two F-5 tornadoes to hit Nebraska in the 1930s.

The other F-5 occurred on April 26, 1938, when a tornado moved west of Oshkosh. In rural Garden County, the tornado levelled a school while a teacher and several students watched outdoors. Three students lost their lives as the tornado ripped apart the school.

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A few of the tornadoes across Nebraska during the 1930s, many more also touched down but are not listed here.

1936: Year of Extremes
1936 proved to be an extreme year for temperatures in Nebraska. It began in late January into February, where temperatures did not warm above freezing for over a month. Nearly every overnight low in the 2nd half of January into February was at or below zero in Omaha. 1936 is the coldest February on record for Nebraska.

If frozen Nebraskans wished for heat relief by the summer, boy did they get it. The summer of 1936 was scorching, with many days in July topping 100 degrees. On July 25, 1936, Omaha recorded its hottest temperature on record at 114 degrees. This record still stands today. 1936 was the hottest July on record in Nebraska, as well as being the 2nd hottest August.

The Republican River Flood
Sometimes, when the rains came, they did so at an unprecedented clip. This was the case on May 30, 1935, when over 1 foot of rain fell in eastern Colorado and southwest Nebraska. As the bone-dry ground could not absorb water that quick, most of it ran into the Republican River. In a matter of several hours the usually calm river which straddles the Nebraska-Kansas line became a raging torrent over a mile wide as it swept everything in its path away. To this day, it remains one of the deadliest natural disasters in Nebraska state history with 113 deaths.

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The Republican River, usually tame, flooded in 1935 killing over 100 people.

SOURCES

  • The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
  • DUST STORMS, NOVEMBER 1933 TO MAY 1934, by WA Mattice, Monthly Weather Review February 1935
  • What Happened on Black Sunday? history.com
  • Significant Tornadoes: A Chronology 1690-1991 by Tom Grazulis
  • Palmer Drought Severity Index
  • Gentle River Goes Mad: The Republican River Flood of 1935 by History Nebraska