• U.S.

WEATHER: Big Duster

3 minute read

Stagnant air hung heavy and ominous over the parched plains last week. Then a cold front hit and the year’s worst duster began to blow. Winds up to 70 m.p.h. whipped across 120,000 square miles of the Southwest dust bowl, and the earth boiled into black clouds 20,000 feet high in the sky. The dust was so thick that dawn came invisibly; when rain began to fall, tiny mud balls pelted the town of Guymon, Okla. Schools closed, stores shut down, and thousands of farm families listened tensely at their radios as their lands and livelihoods blew away.

“When a blow like this hits,” said a county agent in southeast Colorado, “the whole sky turns brown like the smoke from a great prairie fire. Everything is horizontal, and the dust is everywhere like scorched flour. The cattle are bunched with their tails to the winds. Sometimes it gets so bad that mud balls form on the animals’ noses and eyes, and birds and animals are choked to death. I’ve seen hawks downed by the dusters. The lights go on at noon, and the wind whips out grain and grass and fences, and the tumbleweeds fly like they were jet-propelled.”

The wind even picked up small stones. “Duster?” croaked a dry-throated farm wife. “This one throwed rocks at us.” One state farm official reported: “I’ve lived in the so-called dust bowl since 1907, and I’ve never seen it in the condition it is in now.” Explained Texas Conservationist Henry N. Smith: “It isn’t so much what this one storm did—it’s that this one came on top of five years of trouble.”

Five years of drought have dried up some 250,000 square miles centering on the Texas-Oklahoma panhandles and stretching into Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. In places the underground water table has dropped below the disastrous levels of the 1930s. The drought has left more than 18 million acres “in condition to blow”; since November alone, dust storms have damaged 7,000,000 acres, and this week another heavy duster blew up. In Colorado 26 counties have already been classified disaster areas.

“The little guy is running out of soil and money,” warned Conservationist Smith. In Burlington, Colo. Banker Leland Reinecker reported “Most of the farmers lost money last year. Another year of drought will be disastrous.” But this time no swarming migration from the dust bowl has developed; most farmers are gritting the dust between their teeth, grimly plowing their land deep with soil-saving techniques and praying for rain.

No single rainy day can restore the water level and end the drought; it takes months and perhaps years. The dust-bowl dwellers, said Editor Fred Betz of Lamar, Colo., “know that the bad has to be taken with the good, and that this will pass and they will still be alive and solvent.” A nearby farmer who lost most of his wheat last year and his entire crop last week, muttered: “It’s a terrible thing. All we can do is try to hang on.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com