The Dust Bowl to explore humans’ role in decimating prairie

By Andrew Lapin

Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl has a clear message: What happened before can happen again.

The two-part, four-hour film, premiering Nov. 18 on PBS, examines “the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history,” as described in voiceover narration.

At a recent preview event in Washington, D.C., Burns said he didn’t know that the catastrophe could have been avoided until he began work on the documentary.

“I didn’t understand the manmade dimension of this,” Burns told the crowd, referring to the mountains of killer dust that swarmed the Great Plains in the 1930s after enterprising farmers unknowingly doomed themselves by plowing away the land’s topsoil.

Dust Bowl survivor Cal Crabill, who appeared at various events promoting the film, recalled experiencing dust storms as a child: “I was really frightened, but then I just assumed that it was the end of the world and it was my turn.”

Burns and his production crew recruited survivors such as Crabill to participate in the film by collaborating with local PBS stations in states affected by the Dust Bowl, including Oklahoma, which survivors fled, and California, where many of them settled.

Stations that produced local documentaries to coincide with the release of Burns’ film include KUAT in Tucson, Ariz., which is airing Lessons Lost, a one-hour documentary focusing on the Dust Bowl’s effect on Arizona’s economy and demographics. Smoky Hills Public Television in Kansas will re-air its own decade-old documentary, Stories from the Dust Bowl. And in Oklahoma, the state’s OETA network is partnering with the Oklahoma Conservation Partnership to plan community engagement and educational activities around the film.

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