Black Sunday: The Worst Storm of the Dust Bowl

Black Sunday dust storm approaches Beaver, Oklahoma on April 14, 1935. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)
Black Sunday dust storm approaches Beaver, Oklahoma, on April 14, 1935. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

On this date in 1935, the Black Sunday dust storm pummeled the panhandles of the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

Here are some things you may not have known about the worst storm of the Dust Bowl.

First a little background. Poor farming techniques coupled with a severe drought were the major causes of the Dust Bowl. Deep-rooted prairie grasses were used to feed livestock, or removed to cultivate land for crops. The grasses, which were drought tolerant, helped prevent the wind erosion of the topsoil. The disaster started when the crops failed in the drought and there was no grass remaining to hold the dirt in place.

High winds that are common on the plains were then able to pick up huge amounts of fertile topsoil and spread it across the country. The lack of water and topsoil made it nearly impossible to eke out a living by farming.

Earlier in 1935, one storm blew dust to New York and Washington DC. It darkened the sky of the nation’s capital as lawmakers were debating a soil conservation bill. Hugh Hammond Bennett, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s advisers was urging Congress to pass the bill. As for his evidence, he pointed out the window and said, “This, gentlemen, is what I’ve been talking about.”

On April 14, 1935, the sun was shining, allowing people an opportunity to do their weekly chores, go to church or have a picnic. However, by mid-afternoon the temperature dropped quickly, birds began squawking, and an ominous black cloud formed on the horizon. The storm moved fast, hitting the town of Beaver, Oklahoma at 4 p.m., and then Boise City, one hundred miles away, about an hour later. It moved through Amarillo, Texas by 7:20 p.m.

The storm looked like a tsunami of dust. The dust was so thick that a person couldn’t see their hand in front of their face, not from the amount of dust between the face and the hand, but because of the lack of sunlight. Winds topped 60 miles per hour. The dust would cause short circuits in automotive electrical systems, so drivers pulled over and sought shelter wherever they could.

The day after the storm, the term “Dust Bowl” appeared in print for the first time in a news story on the storm by The Associated Press.

It’s unknown how many people died during the storm itself, but thousands died as a result of dust pneumonia, as a result of inhaling fine silt particles.

The soil management techniques Bennett was pushing in Congress helped reduce the amount of blowing dust by 65 percent by 1938. Some of the techniques included crop rotation, strip farming and contour plowing. The Civilian Conservation Corps also planted more than 200 million trees to act as windbreaks. In 1939, after nearly 10 years of drought, the rains returned.

Our question: What is the name of the protagonist in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath”?

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