When Americans battled the weather to stay alive
by Priscilla Knight, Contributing Writer
Summer 2022 was hot. But despite this year’s blistering heat, floods, fires and storms, weather during the 1930s was worse. During that decade, many of our grandparents had to confront the Great Depression and the brewing Second World War, and a great weather war.
“The most extraordinary meteorological decade in recorded U.S. history challenged almost every American, especially people in the Great Plains,” says Rick Vaughan, an amateur meteorologist from Fairfax, Va.
“The immense meteorological stories of the 1930s are interwoven with the unstoppable optimism and sheer grit of homesteaders who went to the Plains to carve out a living, only to be swallowed up by weather.”
RECORD COLD AND HEAT
Much of the country froze and baked during the 1930s. East Coast rivers and the Chesapeake Bay became ice bound in February 1936. Windy Washington felt like minus 85 degrees.
Major blizzards lead to major flooding when snow melted and Noah-like rain fell in March 1936. Treetop-high water covered Hains Point in the nation’s capital. Runways at Washington-Hoover Airport, where the Pentagon sits today, disappeared.
July 1936 remains the warmest U.S. month ever recorded. Marylanders sweltered in 109 degrees. Houses, apartments, factories and offices felt like ovens. Rural Americans did not have electricity to run fans. Nearly 5,000 people died.
DROUGHT AND DUST
Along with high heat came drought and dust storms. The fruited Plains’ soil desiccated in 1930 from the worst drought in 1,000 years. Harsh winds that picked up dry, friable soil created enormous 40-60 mph “black blizzard” and “black roller” dust storms.
In 1934, more than 12 million tons of dirt rained on Chicago before masking New York City and Boston. A black blizzard hid the sun over Capitol Hill.
The 1938 drought parched three-quarters of American land. People died from dust pneumonia, hunger and poverty. Many families gave up. Between 1930 and 1940, some 3.5 million people, about 25%, left the Plains. Newcomers in Eureka, Calif., received a Christmas gift in 1935 — the start of 26 consecutive days of rain.
While dust swirled in the Plains, horrendous hurricanes and terrifying tornados swirled east of the Mississippi River. A record 20 named hurricanes hit in 1933. The category 5 Labor Day hurricane in 1935 stands as the most pressure-intense Atlantic storm to smack the U.S. Its deadly 185-mph winds and 250-mph gusts cut from Florida to Maryland. Seventeen deadly tornados ripped through the South in 1936.
THE NEXT GREATEST THING
After fighting extreme weather, millions of rural Americans jumped at the opportunity to borrow money from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration to form electric cooperatives and finally get “the electric.”
Farmers erected utility poles and strung power lines to villages and farms. Co-op power helped them stay cool in summer and warm in winter.
After gazing at his light-filled house and barn, a farmer proclaimed in his church, “Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you this: The greatest thing on Earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”
The 1930s delivered extraordinary weather, but the decade also brought power to brighten lives and help Americans endure severe weather. Electricity was “the next greatest thing” then and is worth appreciating this month during National Co-op Month.