Although the 1988–89 drought was the most economically devastating natural disaster in the history of the United States (Riebsame et al., 1991), a close second is undoubtedly the series of droughts that affected large portions of the United States in the 1930s. Determining the direct and indirect costs associated with this period of droughts is a difficult task because of the broad impacts of drought, the event’s close association with the Great Depression, the fast revival of the economy with the start of World War II, and the lack of adequate economic models for evaluating losses at that time. However, broad calculations and estimates can provide valuable generalizations of the economic impact of the 1930s drought.
In 1937, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) reported that drought was the principal reason for economic relief assistance in the Great Plains region during the 1930s (Link et al., 1937). Federal aid to the drought-affected states was first given in 1932, but the first funds marked specifically for drought relief were not released until the fall of 1933. In all, assistance may have reached $1 billion (in 1930s dollars) by the end of the drought (Warrick et al., 1980).
According to the WPA, three-fifths of all first-time rural relief cases in the Great Plains area were directly related to drought, with a disproportionate amount of cases being farmers (68%) and especially tenant farmers (70% of the 68%). However, it is not known how many of the remaining cases (32%) were indirectly affected by drought. The WPA report also noted that 21% of all rural families in the Great Plains area were receiving federal emergency relief by 1936 (Link et al., 1937); the number was as high as 90% in hard-hit counties (Warrick, 1980). Thus, even though the exact economic losses are not known for this time period, they were substantial enough to cause widespread economic disruption that affected the entire nation.
"I wonder if in the next 500 years--or the next 1000, there will be summers when rain will fall in Inavale. Certainly not as long as I live will the curse of drouth be lifted from this country."
Don Hartwell, Inavale, NE 1937*
The magnitude of the droughts of the 1930s, combined with the Great Depression, led to unprecedented government relief efforts. Congressional actions in 1934 alone accounted for relief expenditures of $525 million (U.S. House of Representatives, 1934); the total cost (social, economic, and environmental) would be impossible to determine.
If the Roosevelt era marked the beginning of large-scale aid, it also ushered in some of the first long-term, proactive programs to reduce future vulnerability to drought. It was in these years, for example, that the Soil Conservation Service (SCS)—now the Natural Resources Conservation Service—began to stress soil conservation measures. Through their efforts, the first soil conservation districts came into being, and demonstration projects were carried out to show the benefits of practices such as terracing and contouring (for a discussion of the activities of the SCS during this period, see Hurt, 1981).
Warrick et al. (1975) note that the proactive measures continued in the years following the drought: conservation practices and irrigation increased, farm sizes grew larger, crop diversity increased, federal crop insurance was established, and the regional economy was diversified. Many other proactive measures taken after the 1930s drought also reduced rural and urban vulnerability to drought, including new or enlarged reservoirs, improved domestic water systems, changes in farm policies, new insurance and aid programs, and removal of some of the most sensitive agricultural lands from production (Riebsame et al., 1991).
Problems remained, but these programs and activities would play a fundamental role in reducing the vulnerability of the nation to the forthcoming 1950s drought. Although a larger area was affected during the 1950s drought, the conservation techniques that many farmers implemented in the intervening years helped prevent conditions from reaching the severity of the 1930s drought.
*Egan, Timothy. 2005. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Houghton-Mifflin