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Summer that was a hot 'gritty nightmare' inspired famed Pulitzer-winning novel

By John Roach, AccuWeather staff writer
July 25, 2019, 8:33:35 AM EDT

Migrant worker and children

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. And then another. And still more.

And that’s not a reference to New York’s heat wave, power outages and flooding last week.

It was 85 years ago this summer when oppressive heat, drought conditions, dust storms and damage to crops and cattle -- all on top of the years-long Great Depression -- caused unfathomable damage for millions of Americans, particularly those in areas of the United States that came to be known as the Dust Bowl.

There were even biblical-style plagues as grasshoppers and chinch bugs overwhelmed large sections of the country and decimated farmers’ wheat and corn.

A young girl in North Dakota keeping a diary at the time wrote, “Life in what the newspapers call ‘the Dust Bowl’ is becoming a gritty nightmare.”

If the recent heat wave in the Northeast and Southeast was rough, it’s nothing compared to the “Dirty ‘30s.” The widespread heat started early and lasted most of the summer of 1934.

Dust Bowl 1935

About to be engulfed in a gigantic dust cloud is a peaceful little ranch in Boise City, Oklahoma, where the top soil is being dried and blown away. This photo was taken on April 15, 1935. (AP Photo)

According to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, from June 19 to Aug. 21, “not a single day passed without a temperature of 100 degrees or more being registered at some place in the country (excluding desert stations … where such temperatures are normal).”

From June through August 1934, Fort Smith, Arkansas, had 53 days with a daily high temperature of 100 degrees or higher (its average the last 30 years is 12.5 days), Topeka, Kansas, had 47 days (average of 11.9), Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, had 45 (average of 6.1), and Columbia, Missouri had 34 (average of 12.5). All of this occurred at time when there was no air conditioning for relief.

“Clearly, if a heat wave goes on for 10 days, 12 days or more -- as the one in 1934 did -- it can be devastating,” said AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers. “The heat wiped out crops and people were made destitute. The Great Depression was prolonged and made much more severe because of the heat," Myers continued

“Plus, there was a huge drought – worse than anything we have seen recently,” he added. “So, it was a combination of drought and heat, the topsoil blew off and ruined crop production for years into the future. The years 1934 and 1936 were the most dramatic volatility of the weather that we’ve seen in a couple hundred years in this country.”

Indeed, as bad as 1934 was, 1936 may have been worse. High temperature records that still stand to this day were set in 13 states, including 121 degrees in Kansas and North Dakota, and 120 degrees in Oklahoma, Texas and South Dakota.

Dust Bowl 1937 abandoned farm

In this March 29, 1937 file photo, the desolation in this part of the Dust Bowl is graphically illustrated by these rippling dunes banked against a fence, farm home, barn and windmill in Guymon, Oklahoma. This property was abandoned by its owner when destructive dust clouds forced him to seek fortune elsewhere. (AP Photo, File)

Intense heat, expanded areas facing drought conditions and massive dust storms resulted in official estimates of at least 5,000 deaths nationwide that summer of 1936.

“I think a lot of deaths were unreported because they did not classify deaths the way we do today,” said Myers. “It may have been 50,000 people.

“The longevity of a heat wave has a big effect,” Myers said. “Your body has a certain amount of resiliency, but the longer the heat wave goes, the more it creates a stress on your body and the more it takes out of you. That’s why the death toll accelerates with the length of a heat wave. It’s not only how hot it gets, but how long it lasts.”

The heat and drought “gave new energy to the smothering dust storms that blackened skies,” according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. The Dust Bowl area covered 300,000 square miles, and dust-filled skies carried soil as far as the entire Eastern Seaboard. Trains missed scheduled stops because they couldn’t see the towns as they passed through them, the doors and windows of homes had to be sealed to keep out the dust, and ceilings collapsed from the weight of dust that had collected in attics.

It was the final straw for many Midwestern farmers. The serious health impact of the pollution, extreme heat and drought of the 1930s led to a mass exodus from the middle of the country east and west, as dramatized in John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

One Oklahoma farmer, in correspondence with a friend in Maryland, shared how the conditions weighed on her.

“On days like this,” Carolina A. Henderson wrote, “when William Vaughn Moody’s expression ‘dust to eat’ suggests a literal danger, we can’t help questioning whether the traits we would rather think of as courage and perseverance are not actually recklessness and inertia. Who shall say?”

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