How Many People Died in the Dust Bowl?

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The exact number of deaths from the Dust Bowl remains unknown, but evidence suggests hundreds, even thousands, of Plains residents died from exposure to dust. The Dust Bowl claimed the lives of men, women and children, although children and the elderly were most susceptible to the harmful effects of the dust. The thick dust produced by the Dust Bowl also harmed plants and animals, leaving them dead in the aftermath.

Drought and poor land use practices contributed largely to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Although the Dust Bowl officially began in that decade, prolonged dry spells and the growing use of improper farming and cultivation techniques employed by farmers in the southern and Plains states during the preceding decade made conditions ripe for the Dust Bowl. In the 1920s, farmers began replacing native prairie grasses with wheat. Wheat, a staple crop, does not withstand dry weather conditions, as does prairie grass, and fails to protect land from wind erosion.

While millions of Plains residents left their homes during the Dust Bowl, a large number remained. The prolonged exposure to dry, dusty air led to the accumulation of thick layers of dust in the lungs of people and animals. This illness, which caused death or serious complications, received the name “dust pneumonia.”