Tag Archives: Dust Bowl

Quite sure ‘Dust Bowl’ won’t return

One of the things I learned about the Dust Bowl was it was manly caused by human fallibility and ignorance.

I also learned that the Dust Bowl was centered right here on the High Plains of Texas and Oklahoma.

As dry as it has been in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles since this past autumn, I will rely on the knowledge that we have learned how to prevent a recurrence of the hideous tragedy that befell the region in the 1930s.

Ken Burns’ fabulous documentary film, “The Dust Bowl,” which aired on PBS in 2015, reminded us that the event was the worst “manmade ecological disaster” in U.S. history. How did it occur?

Human beings settled on the High Plains and began plowing up natural grassland, turning it into cultivated farm land. Many farmers relied on rainfall to irrigate their crops; they were “dry land farmers.”

They plowed up hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland, which Mother Nature put there to act as protection against wind erosion. The grass held the soil together, preventing it from blowing away in the stiff wind that howls frequently across the High Plains.

Well, then something drastic happened. It stopped raining. The region became gripped by a killer drought. Then the wind blew as it always does. What happened next has become the stuff of legend throughout the High Plains.

The dirt blew in sinister, black clouds across the vast landscape. People breathed in the dirt. They contracted “dust pneumonia.” Many of them died; the most vulnerable were the very old and the very young; obviously, the very sickly also fell victim. Many others who didn’t die vacated their farms and ranches.

Other survivors, though, stayed and powered through the misery.

The nation learned a lot from that terrible time. One of the lessons dealt with tilling the land. Farmers started by letting the grass grow back where Mother Nature intended for it to grow. They improved their tilling techniques to minimize wind erosion.

The rain would return eventually. The High Plains would rebuild. The dust settled.

We’re now gripped by another drought. The U.S. and Texas departments of agriculture consider the region to be in “severe drought” mode.

Here’s a glimmer of hope: No one really believes we are going to experience a chapter-and-verse repeat of what occurred on the High Plains more than eight decades ago. The region’s ignorance about Mother Nature’s way has long gone.

However, we’ve got those damn fires with which we must contend.

Looking more like Dust Bowl

This is what the Dust Bowl looked like?

Dust Bowl, anyone?

What you see here is a picture I snapped this evening looking west from where we are living. The wind is howling. The weather apps on my cell phone and my wife’s cell phone tell us it’ll keep howling through the night and into the next day.

This picture frightens me a bit.

I am not going to equate what we’re seeing here in 2018 to what Texas Panhandle witnessed in the 1930s, when hideously ignorant farming practices coupled with a severe drought created the nation’s worst-ever man-made environmental disaster.

Ken Burns’s documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” told that story in a gripping series that aired on Panhandle PBS a couple years ago. Elderly residents who lived through the Dust Bowl as children recalled watching their siblings and young friends die of “dust pneumonia.” They talked about how they either fled the High Plains or remained to rebuild their lives destroyed by Mother Nature’s merciless wrath.

Are we heading for another catastrophe? No. I don’t intend to suggest such a thing.

The picture I have posted with this blog item, though, intends to illustrate that we are getting a touch — perhaps only a smidgen — of what this region’s ancestors endured during a much darker time.

We all are ready for some rain.

Harvey getting set to deliver a second sucker punch

Here it comes … again!

Hurricane Harvey has been “downgraded” to a tropical storm. The beast delivered its havoc to Houston and is still punishing the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Then it decided to back up, move out over the Gulf of Mexico and pick up some more moisture from the overheated body of water. Now the storm is coming back ashore. Where it makes landfall again remains mostly a guess. It’ll be somewhere east of Houston. Possibly near Beaumont, where my family and I lived for nearly 11 years before moving to higher ground in the Texas Panhandle.

What are we to glean from this mayhem, this madness, the utter terror of our friends, neighbors and loved ones having to endure this wrath?

I am going to maintain faith that our fellow Texans are going to show the kind of strength and resolve they usually exhibit in times of terrible distress.

When the acclaimed PBS series on the Dust Bowl aired a couple of years ago, I learned a lot about the steel that runs up the spines of Texas Panhandle residents who survived that terrible time. The series, titled “The Dust Bowl,” recounted the horror that those survivors felt as they watched the ground beneath them blow away. They were children then. Now, quite obviously, they are much older — but their recollections were vivid and so very moving.

Through it all many of them stayed. They fought through the disaster. They rebuilt their lives.

Those earlier Texans have produced generations just like them today and those among us in real time in this moment are enduring another tragedy, brought by another form of nature’s rage.

The storm named Harvey is coming back in. It’s going to do more damage. That’s the terrible news. There can be no “blessing” to derive from this.

However, I anticipate that even after Harvey finishes its terrible task that our Gulf Coast brethren will find a way to rebuild their shattered lives.

God bless them all.

We’re soaked around here, but is drought really over?

I’m going to have to do the virtually unheard of thing later today: At not quite the halfway point in August, I’m going to empty our rain gauge, which is full of water.

We’ve gotten slightly more than 5 inches of rain at our humble abode in southwest Amarillo so far this month. My wife and I empty it at the end of each month before waiting for more rainfall. This month has been a soaker, man!

The National Weather Service station near Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport reports that Amarillo has received 19 inches of rain year to date; that’s 5 inches more than normal and 6 inches more than we had at this time in 2016.

So, put another way, we’ve achieved just about our average annual amount of precipitation — and we still have more than four months to go in this calendar year.

All of this begs the question: Is the drought over?

I’ve heard it said about the crippling drought the High Plains endured in 2011 that it would take an epic amount of rain to bring us officially out of drought status. I cannot remember the specifics, but given that the Ogallala Aquifer takes so very long to recharge given its depth that the rain has to fall in virtually biblical amounts to break the drought.

I’m going to continue believing that and monitor my water use accordingly.

We don’t have one of those automated irrigation systems in our yard. So that’s not a particular issue for my wife and me. We serviced our outdoor faucets during the depths of the drought, so we’re good there. We do things in the kitchen such as turn on the sink faucet sparingly when washing dishes. We remodeled one of our bathrooms a couple of years ago and had one of those “gravity flush” toilets installed, which saves water.

We’re not paragons environmental purity. I don’t intend to portray us as such. Water preservation, though, remains on the top of my mind’s awareness, even when it’s pouring out of the sky.

I keep thinking, too, about that fabulous PBS documentary “The Dust Bowl” that aired not long ago. It told the terrible, horrifying story of how prolonged drought and reckless farming techniques formed a sort of “perfect storm” that created what has been called the nation’s “worst manmade environmental catastrophe.” The Texas and Oklahoma panhandles were in the bullseye of that hideous event.

Our farming techniques have improved since the 1930s. Yes, we can control how we take care of our land. The return of the kind of Dust Bowl-era drought, though, is far beyond our meager effort to dictate to Mother Nature.

Let’s keep that in mind — even as we welcome the rain that keeps drenching us.

Waiting for an epic TV series: ‘The Vietnam War’

I am tempted to start a short-timer’s calendar in anticipation of what I am absolutely certain is going to become an epic television event.

The Public Broadcasting Service is going to broadcast beginning Sept. 17 a 10-part documentary series, covering 18 hours, on the Vietnam War. Panhandle PBS — based at Amarillo College — will broadcast it in real time as it airs.

I am so very hopeful that it deals with a burning question that has nagged me for decades: Why did we fight this war? I spent a bit of time in Vietnam a long time ago as a member of the U.S. Army. I became confused as to the mission and whether it was all worth the fight. So, it is with that lingering doubt about this major American chapter in our national history that I await this program.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are the co-producers of this TV broadcast. I’m sure you know about Burns, the iconic historian and documentarian who has compiled a vast body of work over many years on PBS. “The Dust Bowl,” for example, told the story of how the world’s greatest manmade ecological disaster affected the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, decimated families and steeled those who remained with an unbelievable resolve to recover.

Burns and Novick have collaborated on this Vietnam War package over the span of 10 years.

I read an interview with them in a magazine called “Vietnam.” Novick answered about what made her decide to make this film. with a fascinating notion. “Some people have said, ‘Why are you going to open old wounds? Can’t we let sleeping dogs lie?'”

I would argue that the dogs of the Vietnam War aren’t sleeping. They haven’t slept a wink since the shooting stopped in late April 1975. The nation has been agonizing ever since about the war, its consequence, the wounds it inflicted on us here at home.

“It’s too painful. And it’s still here,” Novick told “Vietnam.”

A generation of Americans who once were young but who now are much older has lived through considerable pain. Some of us came back from that war and were met with open hostility. I did not experience such shameful conduct, but I certainly knew of it occurring all around me. Those attitudes have changed dramatically in the decades since and I accept with gratitude expressions of thanks today for my service during that long-ago conflict.

I welcome this broadcast with great anticipation about what it will reveal about that terrible time in our national history.

I applaud PBS for its continuing relationship with Ken Burns, who has teamed up with another dedicated documentary filmmaker to tell the story of what has been described as the world’s most important historical event of the second half of the 20th century.

Millions of us played a part in shaping that story. We await anxiously this monumental television event.

Hands off PBS, NPR, Mr. President

Now he’s done it!

The president of the United States has just gored my ox. He has hit me where it hurts. He has taken aim at a government institution I revere.

Donald J. Trump is proposing elimination of public money that goes to National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting … a major arm of the Public Broadcasting Service; also slated for elimination is the National Endowment for the Arts.

Trump proposes zeroing out about $445 million for CPB and NPR. Wiping it out. No more public money for public broadcasting, either radio or television.

“PBS and our nearly 350 member stations, along with our viewers, continue to remind Congress of our strong support among Republican and Democratic voters, in rural and urban areas across every region of the country,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said in a statement.

“We have always had support from both parties in Congress, and will again make clear what the public receives in return for federal funding for public broadcasting,”┬áKerger continued. “The cost of public broadcasting is small, only $1.35 per citizen per year, and the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse.”

So, with that the president wants to eliminate an element of public spending that in the grand scheme amounts to tossing a BB into the ocean, but which brings tangible benefit for millions of Americans.

I have a dog in this particular fight … more or less.

Not long after I left my job in print journalism in the late summer of 2012, I signed on as a freelance blogger for Panhandle PBS, the organization formerly known around the Panhandle as KACV-TV, based at Amarillo College. I wrote about public affairs television. My text was published on Panhandle PBS’s website.

I got great satisfaction writing the blog and I enjoyed my relationship with the public TV station immensely. It ended when the station went through some changes and decided to divert its “resources” toward more on-air production of local programming.

We bid each other adieu. However, I continue to love PBS and what it brings to the quality of life of all Americans, especially to those of us in the Texas Panhandle. Its programming features some first-rate, top-drawer, high-level production. Ken Burns’s documentary series on the Dust Bowl — and its impact on the High Plains region — will remain with me for as long as I draw breath.

I would hate with every fiber of my being seeing the government remove itself from that kind of programming.

And for what purpose? So we can buy more bombs, missiles and other weapons of war — as if we don’t have enough of it already to destroy Planet Earth a billion times over.

Am I angry over this budget proposal? You’re damn right I am!

Do not do this, Mr. President and Congress.

Wind velocity is relentless

This item came to me the other day from a longtime Amarillo friend.

Linda has lived in Amarillo all her life, she told me, adding that her mother grew up in southwest Kansas.

Neither of them, she told me, had seen it blow as it did on Tuesday, April 29. That event is sort of becoming our version of “Black Sunday,” which occurred during the — gulp! — Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

This is worth mentioning as we’re battling the wind and airborne dirt yet again today. It’s not as bad it was the other day, but my friend’s assessment of the severity of that wind-and-dirt event is still quite striking as we continue to pray for rain to end this merciless drought.

I should add that my friend’s mother is old enough to have some memory of the Dust Bowl. So, to learn that she believes the April 29 dirt storm was the worst she’d ever seen … well, that’s saying something.

OK, are we in the midst of Dust Bowl 2.0? Another friend, Richard, told us today at church that as bad as it has been — and as bad as that particular day had become — it was, after all, just a daylong event. This friend also is a lifelong Panhandle resident. He’s a man of the soil. Unlike me, a city slicker if there ever was one, Richard has worked the land on and off for most of his life.

Thus, I’ve heard two varying reports of the severity of what we’re enduring these days. One of them, from the latter friend, seeks to put this misery into some perspective. Yeah, it’s bad, he says, but think of having to go through these dirt storms for days, even weeks on end! That’s what occurred during the Dust Bowl and it’s a far cry — so far, I should stipulate — from what we’re going through today.

Whatever perspective you want to place around the Spring of 2014 weather, I’m still alarmed to hear others who’ve lived here a lot longer than we have say this is as bad as it’s ever been.

I’m more than ready for rain.

Dust is tough to mow

A word to the wise is in order as the Texas Panhandle recovers from this latest dirt/wind/mud-rain episode.

When you crank up the lawnmower, be sure you’re wearing some kind of mask.

I did precisely that — cranked up the mower — this morning and learned the lesson the hard way.

Every fourth pass I made with the mower across the lawn was downwind, meaning that the dirt that was embedded in the grass blew into my face. I should have known better than to try this chore without adequate protection.

I got the job done, then had to re-bathe to wash the dirt away.

All this is worth mentioning only to remind us all of how it used to be around here, many decades ago.

The Dust Bowl.

Its very name conjures up hideous memories among those old enough to recall when the sky filled with dirt from horizon to horizon. It blackened the sky. It blotted out the sun.

Those who didn’t flee to calmer locations, usually out west, stayed and fought their way through it. They were still standing when the dirt stopped flying. It took years for the weather to cycle its way back to something approaching “normal” around here. But it did.

When I think about that level of suffering, I don’t feel so bad about having to cope with a little dirt flying out of the grass as I cut it.

Still, a mask would have been nice.

Looking more like Dust Bowl

As I write these few words, the sky is looking browner than I remember it ever looking … ever.

I’ll admit I’ve lived in the Texas Panhandle a mere 19 years and four months. My history here isn’t as long as many folks’ time on the High Plains. My wife and I do have enough of an institutional memory, though, to call ourselves fairly experienced in this region’s sometimes-strange weather.

Today it’s about as “strange” as it’s gotten during our time here.

The wind is blowing at a sustained 30 mph. It’s gusting to around 60 mph.

I sat this morning waiting for a friend to show up for a cup of coffee. I sat at a coffee shop literally at the edge of the city. The wind started to kick up and as I looked toward the southwest, across a large stretch of pasture, I watched the dirt begin to billow into the sky.

Then it rolled in atop us at the coffee shop.

And then — all at once — about a dozen cell phones began buzzing “storm alert” warnings … mine included. A collective laugh went up from the room. “No kidding. Dust storm? Who knew?” one woman muttered.

I won’t pretend to know what the Dust Bowl was like. I’ve read about, heard stories about it, seen documentary films about it. The pictures are hideous. The stories of suffering, hardship and death are even more so.

Still, the weather today is beginning to look a lot like those pictures.

When is this going to end?

Is it windier and dryer than ever?

A particular sentiment seems to be creeping into more Texas Panhandle residents’ conversation.

It is that the wind and the dirt that is blowing through the air is “the worst I’ve ever seen” in the Panhandle.

I heard it yet again this morning at church from a 60-something friend who’s lived here all her life. Others have made similar statements to me for the past several weeks as the wind just won’t relent.

Here and there folks are suggesting the wind that’s howling and the dirt that’s filling the air remind them of the bad old Dust Bowl days.

I won’t go that far. First of all, the Dust Bowl occurred 70-plus years ago. Second of all, the footage I’ve seen of events such as Black Sunday defy description.

Setting all that aside for a moment, let’s just consider that we’re likely in for a prolonged dry spell. Weather forecasters aren’t giving us much reason to believe a radical change in the weather is coming soon.

We’re in the grip of a drought that’s entering its fourth year. We had a slight break in 2012 from the lack of rainfall. So far this year, our precipitation level is about a third of what it’s supposed to be. Our winter snowfall was a good bit below normal. Lake levels are receding, streams are dry and grass used to feed our cattle is hard to find. Thus, ranchers are selling their cattle under weight because they cannot afford the high cost of grain to keep them fed.

It’s a mess out there.

What’s the lesson here? Two things come to mind.

First, we need to stop worrying about the wind, suck on some throat lozenges and perhaps say a prayer for more rain. Does prayer work? Well, someone has to prove to me it doesn’t. Absent that proof, I’ll keep asking for some divine intervention.

Second, cities need to start talking more proactively about water conservation. Amarillo is beginning such a conversation, but officials are saying mandatory restrictions aren’t yet on the table. I’m not so sure that’s necessarily a wise course to take in light of this drought. City Hall needs to start talking loudly and often about the need to conserve water and it ought to prepare immediately to enact a mandatory plan if we don’t get relief in, say, the next 30 days.

Meanwhile, batten everything down, folks.