Ecology And Environment

The effects of drought during the Great Depression



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Before the era of global warming, America focused on a primary need. During the early 1900s, Midwest farmers abused their topsoil. They repeatedly cultivated the land using outdated, farm equipment. The agricultural states of Kan., Okla., the Dakotas, Neb. and Ark. were wrecked. In addition, these areas endured a paralyzing drought, which compounded problems of keeping the soil firm and solid.

Between the 1920s to 1930s, destructive, "dust storms" ripped through the Midwest. They were a deadly combination of soil, soot, fine dust particles and sand. Some were minor mesocyclones. Others rose to immense tornadoes that spread over a mile wide.

Towns, such as Topeka and Wichita (Kan.), Tulsa and Stillwater (Okla.) and Platte and Lincoln (Nebraska) all felt the dust storms. Millions of tons of topsoil were lifted, and then spread for thousands of square miles. Sometimes, these disasters lasted for hours. Others lasted for days. Farmlands were later covered. Meager crops were smothered. They also produced more dangerous hazards.

Dust storms attacked the health of Midwest families. Many residents swallowed the fine particles which penetrated their porous dwellings. There were no trees to protect these inhabitants from the elements. Grown men struggled to do outdoor chores. Some even "drowned" from taking in too much dust. Women, children and elderly suffered grievously. Makeshift hospitals were established to house dust storm victims. Doctors were baffled by the cases of coughing, lack of breathing, jaundice and chronic fatigue. They were also stunned at the cases of young children.

Victims showed symptoms of Virginia coal miners who suffered "black lung" disease. Fine particles contaminated their lungs. Many literally coughed up dust during examinations. Ephysema, asthma, pnuenomia, colds and bronchitis affected hundreds of adolescents. Doctors often said that 20 year-old, strapping men appeared to have the staminas of elderly men. Swallowing in dust intensified the effects of other airborne illnesses.

The dust disaster coincided with America's Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was familiar with the happenings in the Midwest. However, his Administration only became involved when a dust storm landed in Washington, D.C. He saw the misery up close. Afterwards, the press published the farmers' plight nationwide.

With FDR at the forefront, the Soil Conservation Act was initiated. It provided farmers with creative ways of farming and cultivating with the emphasis of preserving topsoil. New equipment made farming much easier. Also, trees were planted in distressed regions to hold the soil down and block high winds. Irrigation practices were renewed and perfected. And, the areas began receiving adequate rainfall.

By World War II, the "breadbasket of America" returned to stay.

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