by Bill Benson
January 11, 2018
People on the West Coast endure droughts and forest fires. People on the Northeast Coast endure minus degree temperatures and a foot of snow. People in the Southeast endure the ferocious winds, rain, and flooding that hurricanes bring. People who live in Tornado Alley—Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri—suffer from those spinning cyclones’ destruction.
Here on the Great Plains, in fly-over country, we suffer from droughts, prairie fires, hailstorms, grasshoppers, and winter blizzards.
The drought of the century occurred on the Great Plains in the early thirties. Beginning in the summer of 1931, the rains failed to appear, and the same continued year after year. Weather officials consider the year 1934, the driest ever. One official said, “Things really dried out.”
Federal legislation had encouraged thousands of inexperienced farmers to migrate to the Great Plains, from Texas, north to the Dakotas. Once there, they plowed up the grass. Without rainfall, the wheat and corn crops failed, and without the native grass or a cover crop, high winds would pick up the bare top soil, and form billowing clouds of dust, hundreds of miles wide and thousands of feet high.
Suddenly, without warning, a dust cloud would appear, obscure the sun, and roll forward for miles.
The worst dust storm occurred on “Black Sunday,” April 14, 1935. This dust blizzard devastated southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, and carried away thousands of tons of topsoil. An Associated Press reporter referred to it as “life in the dust bowl of the continent.” Since then, people call the dirty thirties the Dust Bowl.
Prairie fires ignite during high wind conditions, often in March. They need a single spark and dry grass. Once started, the wind carries the fire forward. It races ahead of itself in a flash, jumps over roads, engulfs homes, surrounds and traps cattle and horses, and leaves a trail of destruction behind it, before the fire fighters can head it off and stop it.
Hailstorm season on the Great Plains occurs in June, July, and August. The combined action of high wind and hailstones will beat down wheat, corn, millet, and bean crops. A hailstorm will break window glass in homes and cars, and pock-mark and strip bare roofs and walls. Few who experience a hailstorm can ever forget the noise that the wind and the hailstones produce when battering a house.
Although rare in recent years, grasshopper infestations have occurred on the Great Plains in the past. Because certain grasshopper species can fly and are ravenous, they will join together, take to the air, and form clouds that will fall upon anything colored green. People today cannot imagine this plague.
The worst year for grasshoppers happened in 1874. A Kansas farmer said that year, “I lost sixty acres of wheat, eaten into the ground in less than an hour. I thought I had seen locusts two years ago, but I was mistaken.” Another said, “Our garden is perfectly cleared; beans, cabbages, tomatoes, melons, everything utterly gone. The vines to the potatoes are gone.”
The Great Plains’s worst winter blizzard during the last century began on Sunday afternoon, January 2, 1949, sixty-nine years ago this month. “Temperatures dropped from the mid-30’s in the forenoon to 10 below zero or colder by evening. Winds gusted to 66 miles per hour, and snow blew everywhere.”
The snow fell for three days. It covered the ground, but the high winds would drift it into gigantic mounds ten, fifteen, and twenty, or even fifty feet tall. All transportation on railroads and highways and roads ceased for days. Vehicles, including snow plows, were buried under huge layers of snow.
On Wednesday, January 5, the snow stopped, the sky cleared, the sun appeared, and people began to try to dig out. Across southeast Wyoming, northern Colorado, western South Dakota, and western Nebraska, hundreds of people were stranded. The official death toll in the region came in at 76.
The cattle faced starvation. Pilots loaded bales of hay into their planes and dropped them near their cattle, but that was insufficient. As a result, tens of thousands cattle died in the ’49 blizzard.
Few people, if any, alive then had seen a blizzard of this dimension, this severity, this massive, and none since. Other significant blizzards occurred in March of 1977, and on Christmas Eve of 1982.
Which is worst? A drought, a dust storm, a prairie fire, a hailstorm, a grasshopper invasion, a tornado, or a winter blizzard? None are expected and none are pleasant. I say drought is the worst. It is agonizing to plant crops and then watch them burn up. A drought lasts the longest.