Egan not only describes these conditions, including the worst of the dust storms in the center of the Dust Bowl on Black Sunday (April 14, 1935), but how average everyday people sought to cope and survive. He takes us inside their homes and their lives. He shows us their experiences from their own and their family's recollections. He shows us the daily struggles and the impact of the conditions as they extended from year to year. And there was more to coping with the dust storms than simply its economic impact.
Many farmers and farm communities lived off what the farms produced. Farms were not just a source of income, they were the source of food for the table. Now, homesteaders could barely keep gardens alive. They took to feeding tumbleweeds to what little stock they kept. And it was not uncommon for them to resort to eating tumbleweeds themselves.
The impact of the omnipresent dust and the seemingly endless cycle of dust storms produced effects one might not expect.
Men avoided shaking hands with each other because the static electricity was so great it could knock a person down. They also put cloth on their doorknobs and metal oven handles to inhibit the electric jolt. Car owners used chains, dragging them along the street as a ground for the electricity in the air.
This meant that in addition to trying to navigate roads drifted in with dust and coming across the blinding dust storms, vehicles could simply stop because of a discharge of static electricity, leaving an individual or family stranded in the middle of nowhere. Yet other dangerous effects were far more difficult to avoid. People and animals could not avoid inhaling the often microscopic dust particles, which pervaded not only the outdoors but their homes. Prairie dust contains a significant amount of silica, which, if it accumulates, can destroy the lungs.
After prolonged exposure, [prairie dust] has the same effect on people as coal dust has on a miner. Silicosis has long been a plague of people who work underground and is the oldest occupational respiratory disease. But it takes years to build up. In the High Plains, doctors were seeing a condition similar to silicosis after just three years of storms. ... By the mid-1930s, a fourth condition, dust pneumonia, was rampant. It was one of the biggest killers.
The years of drought and dust decimated families and towns physically, emotionally and economically. It caused one of the greatest internal migrations in U.S. history. It often seemed as if the world were coming to an end. As one farmer in southern Nebraska noted in his diary at the end of July 1936: "July saw the worst month (so far) of the worst year ever."