Calling it "the greatest man-made ecological disaster in U.S. history," Ken Burns told members of the Television Critics Association on Sunday that his new documentary, "The Dust Bowl," is a cautionary tale.
"I don't know how they survived," Burns said of the Americans who suffered through the 10-year ordeal. "I don't know how they did it. I don't know how they understood what was going on."
The Dust Bowl (aka, "The Dusty Thirties") was a period of devastating dust storms during the 1930s that caused terrible ecological damage to prairie lands in the U.S. and Canada. It was a man-made disaster caused by overfarming and severe drought, leading to the displacement hundreds of thousands of people.
"The isolation was so complete that you can imagine what it would be like for one of these mountain ranges coming toward you, and not knowing what it was," says Burns.
As one person recalled from the infamous "Black Sunday" dust storm in 1935, it truly appeared as if the world was coming to an end.
"It had the appearance of a mammoth waterfall in reverse — color as well as form. The apex of the cloud was plumed and curling, seething and tumbling over itself from north to south and whipping trash, papers, sticks, and cardboard cartons before it. Even the birds were helpless in the turbulent onslaught and dipped and dived without benefit of wings as the wind propelled them."
The film, separated into two parts and spanning nearly four hours, will tell the stories of 25 people who were children and teenagers during the dust bowl years. PBS will air it on Nov. 18 and 19. You can check out a trailer above.
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