Book Review

A powerful story of one of the nation’s worst natural disasters

By Donna Bruno
Posted 5/21/24

In 1934, a predatory dust storm carried windblown shards of the Great Plains over much of the nation. In Chicago, 12 million tons of dust fell. …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Register to post events

If you'd like to post an event to our calendar, you can create a free account by clicking here.

Note that free accounts do not have access to our subscriber-only content.

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.

Book Review

A powerful story of one of the nation’s worst natural disasters


‘The Worst Hard Time’
By Timothy Egan

In 1934, a predatory dust storm carried windblown shards of the Great Plains over much of the nation. In Chicago, 12 million tons of dust fell. New York and Washington – even ships at sea 300 miles off the Atlantic Coast – were blanketed with it. In the mid-West, cattle went blind and suffocated. When farmers cut them open, they found the stomachs lined with fine sand.

Inhabitants of the Great Plains asserted they could not see their hands right in front of their faces. Children coughed and gagged, dying from something doctors called “dust pneumonia.”

As the tempestuous winds and heat gathered strength, people hid in their cellars all day. Their throats hurt; their skin cracked; their eyes itched. When they blew their noses stuffed with Vaseline, black snot emerged. These conditions rendered people irritable and incited nervousness. People, so constantly harassed by discomfit, grew mean.

Black widow spiders crawled out of the woodwork and corn stacks, up the walls of frame houses. The kids were so bothered by crawling, biting insects and tarantulas, they refused to get into bed for fear there were spiders between the sheets. To add to their misery, buckets of centipedes crawled up drapes and over floors. Green worms appeared on the fence, inside the house, over the porch, and into the kitchen. In addition, hoards of grasshoppers swarmed over the fields, chewing down green shoots, leaving nothing to grow.

Something was seriously wrong with the land that had become an active malevolent force. It was a mystery to farmers and meteorologists.

But one man, Hugh Bennett, believed it had been caused by man’s stupendous ignorance and hubris. Angry that the government had encouraged exploitative farming, he believed they were responsible for this epic disaster. To induce settlement on these lands, it had passed a Homestead Act, offering free land to those who would farm it. For decades the land in the arid western half of the Great Plains had been over-farmed and overgrazed. Roughly 200 million acres were homesteaded between 1880 and 1925.

“Every man a landlord” appealed to those who had been sharecroppers, white trash, slaves, castaways, and rejected Mexicans. By the summer of 1929, the U.S. had huge food surpluses; towers of unsold wheat were housed in silos and stacked in piles outside grain elevators. By the end of 1930, eight million people were unemployed. By the end of 1932, one-fourth of all banks closed and nine million had lost their savings.

Never before had so many people been without purpose, direction, or money. Foreclosures became common, especially among farmers who were in debt for taxes, livestock feed, or equipment. More Americans still worked on farms than anywhere else. Even the wealthy were scared. Joe Kennedy was heard to remark, “I’m afraid I’m going to end up with nine kids, three homes, and no dough.”

So Hugh Bennett went on the road, camping out next to his car, as he took soil surveys in every affected state. In desperation, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt summoned him to the White House, where Bennet explained that the country had farmed too much too fast. The President appointed him director of a new agency, The Soil Erosion Service, to stabilize the soil.

Bennett’s prediction that the “dusters” would get much worse proved true in 1933, when hailstones like mud pellets rained down in dirty torrents, buckling cars, and were then followed by a twister that shattered windows, lifted roof tops, knocked down walls, as well as telephone poles, and pushed houses from their foundations. The High Plains lay in ruin.

Journalist Ernie Pyle, driving through, saw a withering land of misery – just gray raw earth, a few abandoned farmhouses and barns, not a tree or blade of grass or dog or cow nor any human being – “the saddest land” he had ever seen.

Not only does the author describe in vivid detail the fury of the storms, the frustration and hardship of the people and the entire dashing of hope, but he also focuses on a few specific victims for whom he creates enormous empathy. The worst storm, occurring on “Black Sunday,” had a top wind speed of 100 miles per hour and an impact 200 miles wide. It entirely blocked the sun, while temperatures dropped 25 degrees in one hour. It carried loose soil through four states, everything a hazy blur.

One victim was a frantic mother who, after covering the windows with sheets doused in kerosene and her baby’s crib with wet sheets, still had to use a shovel to push the dust that had accumulated inside and was interfering with her infant’s breathing. Desperate, she took the infant to a faraway hospital, where they tried to suction mud from its lungs. The infant could not hold down milk, which came back up as grimy spit. Her husband made the hazardous, 300-mile car trip with his head outside the window the entire two days, wearing goggles and a respiratory mask, which clogged quickly.

After veering off the road, he drove along a ditch with two wheels below grade level and two on the road, only to arrive too late. The reader feels the deep sorrow and unrelenting fatigue these people experienced, not only storms and their destruction, but also the loss of all hope for a better future. The baby’s grandmother also succumbed to dust pneumonia the same day back home, necessitating two simultaneous funerals.

A young boy playing in a field with a friend got lost in the storm’s blackness, confused as he tried to find his way home. Found dead, he had suffocated just a half mile from his destination. One man fell to the ground, crawling to a shed when he felt like hornets were stinging his eyes. When found, he said he could not see, his eyes full of black dirt; he went blind and never recovered.

The author also inspires respect for President Roosevelt, who took steps to alleviate the suffering and remedy the situation. With Hugh Benett in charge, strict conservation measures were enforced — rotating crops, fallowing lands, and building natural barriers — planting 220 million trees. To keep agriculture going, an infrastructure of pipes and pumps was installed, the nation’s biggest source of underground fresh water. In addition, FDR started a Works Progress Administration to keep the government payroll rolling.

This is a most informative book that catalogues one of our nation’s greatest natural disasters. Although I was aware of the devastating dust storms of the 1930s, this book allowed me to imagine and appreciate the ferocity of the winds, as well as vicariously feel the choking strangulation of the dust. It is a powerful book.

2024 by East Bay Media Group

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email