In the 1930s, drought covered virtually the entire Plains for almost a decade (Warrick, 1980). The drought’s direct effect is most often remembered as agricultural. Many crops were damaged by deficient rainfall, high temperatures, and high winds, as well as insect infestations and dust storms that accompanied these conditions. The resulting agricultural depression contributed to the Great Depression’s bank closures, business losses, increased unemployment, and other physical and emotional hardships. Although records focus on other problems, the lack of precipitation would also have affected wildlife and plant life, and would have created water shortages for domestic needs.
A dust storm approaching Rolla, Kansas, May 6, 1935. (Image: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Digital Archives)
Although the 1930s drought is often referred to as if it were one episode, there were at least 4 distinct drought events: 1930–31, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40 (Riebsame et al., 1991). These events occurred in such rapid succession that affected regions were not able to recover adequately before another drought began. Historical maps of U.S. climate divisions and graphs of U.S. river basins reflect this situation.
Effects of the Plains drought sent economic and social ripples throughout the country. For example, millions of people migrated from the drought areas, often heading west, in search of work. These newcomers were often in direct competition for jobs with longer-established residents, which created conflict between the groups. In addition, because of poverty and high unemployment, migrants added to local relief efforts, sometimes overburdening relief and health agencies.
Many circumstances exacerbated the effects of the drought, among them the Great Depression and economic overexpansion before the drought, poor land management practices, and the areal extent and duration of the drought. (Warrick et al., 1975, and Hurt, 1981, discuss these issues in greater detail; see the reference section for the full citations.) The peculiar combination of these circumstances and the severity and areal coverage of the event played a part in making the 1930s drought the widely accepted drought of record for the United States. To cope with and recover from the drought, people relied on ingenuity and resilience, as well as relief programs from state and federal governments. Despite all efforts, many people were not able to make a living in drought-stricken regions and were forced to migrate to other areas in search of a new livelihood. It is not possible to count all the costs associated with the 1930s drought, but one estimate by Warrick et al. (1980) claims that financial assistance from the government may have been as high as $1 billion (in 1930s dollars) by the end of the drought. Fortunately, the lessons learned from this drought were used to reduce the vulnerability of the regions to future droughts.