After the United States has gone through disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the more recent Sandy, we tend to forget that environmental disasters have been a part of that country almost as long as it has existed. If we go back 80 years or so there was one called The Dust Bowl and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns investigates it and the aftereffects with his usual thoroughness.
Unlike Katrina and Sandy, The Dust Bowl was man-made and it is arguably the worst ecological disaster in American history. Using pictures and testimonials by members of families who lived through it and are still alive, Ken Burns tells the tale of the decade long drought suffered by those living in the area of the United States primarily affected.
Narrated by Peter Coyote, The Dust Bowl begins with the wheat boom in the 1920s in the Southern Plains of the United States. Despite the fact that the land was risky for this type of crop the economic payoff was too big to resist for plenty of immigrant farmers. They settled in areas of Oklahoma and began to overplant. This boom was followed by a drought and subsequent dust storms in the 1930s. The storms hit the same parts of the country over and over. An after effect of the dust storms was a condition called “dust pneumonia” and affected many. The economic problems were exacerbated by the health problems.
Due to the ensuing economic problems many a broke farmer turned to suicide as the solution. Those who did not take their own lives were left to deal with incredible unemployment. Many families were affected and lots left the area to move to other parts. The effect of the droughts and dust storms was heightened by the ensuing Depression that hit the United States in the 1930s. In 1929 the Stock Market Crash plunged the United States into economic trouble that had not been felt before.
The government realized they had to step in to do something to revive the area and the soil found there. It began to offer people money to stay there and farm. In a cruel twist another plague hit the area when an infestation of grasshoppers crippled the renewed attempts at farming.
It was only in the 1940s that the Great Plains was able to recover. Technology helped with the irrigation problem of the area. But it is hinted at that the recovery might only be temporary as the future could bring the same type of problems for farmers of the region.
Though this is basically a history lesson Ken Burns, through his immense talent, manages to make it a very human tale. Using testimonials from those who lived through the disaster he renders the event very real and the stories of the tragedies poignant. He also makes a point with his efforts to show that the problems look to be returning due to the present irrigation method. Frightening to think that people would have to live through this again.
In regards to documentary filmmaking Ken Burns has nothing left to prove. His vanguard style has revolutionized documentary filmmaking and his influence can be felt far and wide in the genre. This critical acclaim and success has not slowed him down. Burns still churns out high quality documentary films. History comes alive in this man’s hands.
-Land of Haze, Dust Bowl Stories, Uncovering the Dust Bowl, Grab a Root and Growl, The Dust Bowl Eyewitnesses, The Dust Bowl Legacy