Texas Primer: The Dust Storm

When all of Texas seems about to blow away, the best defense is a sense of humor.

True grit. Pioneers who didn’t have it before their first sandstorm certainly did after. That’s why cowboys said a spunky fellow had sand. Though rarely lethal, sandstorms are universally despised. Nothing can keep out flying sand—not closed windows, not bandannas, not prayer. (Wet rags under the door help, but not much.) Sandstorms spell trouble. An 1895 storm blew down section houses along the Texas and Pacific Railway tracks. A sixties spate of “Oklahoma rain” chased by a blizzard dumped brown snow across the High Plains. A pair of 1977 dust storms ruined $6 million worth of winter wheat in the Panhandle and injured twenty people in El Paso. With Texas one of thirty states now stricken by drought, new tales may be on the way.

Any Texan can tell you a sandstorm story. Native writers appreciated its drama. Tom Lea set the opening chapter of The Wonderful Country in one, and in Lonesome Dove green cowhand Newt suffered baptism by sand on his second day up the trail. The gutless heroine of Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel, The Wind, hated the sand: “Her eyes smarted with it … her throat choked with it … When she lay down at night her pillow was scratchy with its covering of sand, she could feel the grains crawling inside her clothing like vermin.”

Wind is, of course, the moving force behind a sandstorm. When north winds howl into Texas, they displace rising hot air and snatch up any loose soil in their path. The stronger and faster the winds, the more sand they push before them. An equally strong factor is drought. The drier the land, the looser the topsoil and the more easily the upper layer is swept away.

Although most Texans use the terms “dust storm” and “sandstorm” interchangeably, the legendary sandstorms of the past are as rare today as they are ferocious. Decades ago prairie grass protected most of the soil on the plains, but pockets of sand blew about freely. Eventually, however, years of sustained plowing exposed millions of acres of dirt and made dust storms more common. Because dirt is finer-grained than sand, a storm flings it higher and faster. Thus sandstorms hang low on the horizon; dust storms boil up like thunderheads. A final difference is color. Sandstorms are yellow, dust storms brown.

In 1934 a six-year dry spell and poor land management produced the Dust Bowl, withering farms across the Panhandle and the Great Plains. By 1936 the Amarillo weather bureau had counted 192 dusters locally. (No wonder the Amarillo High School team is called the Sandstorm—the Sandies for short.) Dust storms and poverty drove people out of their homes to seek new beginnings elsewhere. One of them was songwriter Woody Guthrie, who abandoned his job as a sign painter in Pampa to hitch a ride west to California and fortune. He told the first truck driver who stopped that he wanted “outta this damn dust.”

Dust storms can occur statewide at any time of the year, but they are most prevalent in the High Plains, particularly in a twenty-county area around Lubbock and most often in late winter or early spring. During the typical Dust Bowl storm, 122 tons of dirt an hour blew through Lubbock. But the worst duster of the century pummeled the area on January 25, 1965. Streetlights came on at noon and soon disappeared in the roiling dust. Tumbleweeds raced past motorists on the highway—back when the speed limit was 70. Airline pilots reported dust at 31,000 feet—six miles high. The storm scoured the paint off pickups and dumped three and a half inches of grit into the rain gauge at Reese Air Force Base. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal  reported wryly that farmers “couldn’t do much except stay inside and watch their farms travel.”

Humor is the only weapon against flying dust and sand, and in that department, Midland takes honors. In 1955 the Reporter-Telegram announced the formation of the Sandstorm Advisory Board, whose one and only duty was to name the storms—in a farsighted move—after men. The first name chosen was, naturally, Adam; the second, Benson, after then-Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson. And folklorist J. Frank Dobie saw the sunny side of the issue. He told of a Texas Ranger who, in the aftermath of a sandstorm, spied a cowboy hat on the ground. Picking it up, the ranger discovered a man’s head underneath. Frantically he dug out the buried cowpoke, who coughed, spat, and croaked out, “Get a shovel. There’s a good horse under me.”

Tags: THE CULTURE

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