Black Sunday Remembered

 

That Sunday 75 years ago in the Oklahoma Panhandle began magnificently with bright sunshine, calm winds and plenty of spring warmth. Area residents, so burdened by incessant dust that month, enjoyed the reprieve by flocking outdoors. Picnics, car rides and odd jobs around the farm were tackled with a renewed vigor. The region had suffered a significant dust storm just four days previous on the 10th. It was as if the "Dust Gods," a term used by locals during that period to embody the evil force behind their plight, had averted their gaze from the beleaguered populace. The respite would prove to be short-lived, however, and the calm was soon replaced with the violence of the worst "duster" of the Dust Bowl drought. The date was April 14, 1935, and will be forever remembered as "Black Sunday."

Unlike the sand blows that occurred with the sirocco-like winds from the southwest, the Black Sunday event was one of the less frequent but more dramatic storms borne south on polar air originating in Canada. Rising some 8000 feet into the air, these churning walls of dirt generated massive amounts of static electricity, complete with their own thunder and lightning. Reports of the storm indicate that the cold air from the "Norther" struck first, with the wall of dust following soon thereafter. Temperatures plunged 40 degrees along the storm front before the dust hit. Mr. Ralph H. Guy, National Weather Service cooperative observer in Kenton, Oklahoma, noted about the storm:

"Severe dust storm hit at 4:20 p.m., turning afternoon brightness immediately into midnight darkness, and absolutely zero visibility. It was totally dark and impossible to see without searchlight, for at least 15 minutes...the storm came from the north and northeast and traveled at a very great speed."

Many area residents were caught unaware by this unique storm, remembered by locals at the time as one of only three in living memory that appeared to "roll" as it approached. Those caught out in the open were forced to crawl on hands and knees in search of shelter in the impenetrable darkness, literally unable to see their hands in front of their faces. Cars stalled and stopped in the choking dust, and many thought the end of the world had come.

Associated Press reporter Robert Geiger and photographer Harry Eisenhand were caught 6 miles north of Boise City, Oklahoma. The dust cloud enveloped their car as they raced at 60 miles an hour in an attempt to outrun it. The trip the rest of the way into Boise City took over two hours as they drove with the door open so they could see the edge of the highway. A newspaper report by Geiger the following day would give the era its name, a term eventually used as a measuring stick for the severity of every drought thereafter.

In that report, Geiger wrote:

"Three little words — achingly familiar on a western farmer's tongue — rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent ... 'if it rains.'"

Some survivors claim the term "dust bowl" had been used by locals prior to Geiger's reports, an amalgam of the dust they were suffering and a soup bowl, which was a familiar item due to the prevalence of Depression-era soup kitchen lines. Nevertheless, the popularized term soon spread both nationally and internationally.

Black Sunday storm seemed to mark the peak of the dust storms across the region, although the dust would not stop with that most violent of storms. Several stations in the Oklahoma panhandle reported moderate to heavy dust on 20 days during the month, and light dust on other days. Other areas of Oklahoma were not immune to the dust. The Oklahoma City Airport station noted dust on 18 days during the month.

Black Sunday marked the turning point in the Federal Government's recognition of the soil erosion occurring in the Dust Bowl region, labeling it a "national menace." Hugh Bennett, considered the father of the soil conservation movement, had long tried to draw attention to the farmer's plight. Up to that point, he had been largely ignored, and the Dust Bowl was seen in the nation's capitol as just another facet of the depression. Already scheduled to deliver an address to Congress concerning the matter, he heard tales of the massive Black Sunday storm, spreading its dust towards the east. He stalled his report until the dust settled over Washington D.C. Upon its arrival, many of the Congressmen were horrified at the fine, powdery sand choking their throats and scratching their eyes. Using the moment to full effect, Bennett proclaimed "This, gentlemen, is what I've been talking about." On April 27th, 1935, the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was created, and placed under the control of Bennett.

A boiling cloud of dust approaches Stratford, Texas. Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library, George E. Marsh album.

To read more on the Dust Bowl, please see the Oklahoma Climatological Survey's "Summer 2004" edition of its seasonal summary series Oklahoma Climate: 

http://climate.ok.gov/index.php/climate/seasonal_summaries/reports_summaries

Or visit the Norman National Weather Service office's webpage at: 
http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=blacksunday

And the Dodge City National Weather Service office's webpage at: 
http://www.crh.noaa.gov/news/display_cmsstory.php?wfo=ddc&storyid=50702&source=0