BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — America may seem like the butt of nature’s joke after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. But nearly 80 years ago the nation suffered the greatest man-made cataclysm in its history.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s swept through portions of Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and New Mexico with unimaginable force.
The people who have survived that experience were children at the time. And documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has unearthed them to tell their stories in “The Dust Bowl,” a two-part, four-hour chronicle airing Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS.
Burns, who brought us the precedent-setting “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “The War,” has joined forces with writer Dayton Duncan and author-historian Timothy Egan to follow the path of the destructive ill-wind that blew nobody any good.
“(It was) a 10-year apocalypse punctuated by hundreds, hundreds of terrifying black blizzards that killed not only farmers’ crops and cattle, but their children too,” says Burns at a press gathering here.
“All of this was superimposed on the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of the world, the Depression. It was an epic of human pain and suffering, but it is also the story of heroic perseverance. And more than any other film we have made, it is an oral history populated less by historians and experts than those who survived those horrible days.”
Old men and women now, Burns’ eyewitnesses remember with aching clarity the terror of the time.
“They were children and teenagers then, their searing memories as raw and direct as if this had all happened yesterday,” he says.
“What they were witnessing is unparalleled in American history. And yet their perspective is resolutely personal and intimate, as through a child’s eyes watching as their parents’ world collapsed, watched as their farms were lost and their own siblings died of the merciless dust pneumonia.”