Before FEMA


The language of the Bible haunts the latest documentary by Ken Burns. There are descriptions of “plagues” that sound like the book of Exodus. At one point, a camera zooms in on an old newspaper bearing a citation from Ezekiel. At another, a solemn voice-over, reading from the work of a long-ago journalist, alludes to Hosea 8:7—“They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

No, Burns is not giving us his take on the Old Testament. His new documentary is The Dust Bowl, airing in two two-hour installments on November 18 and 19, at 8 p.m. (check local listings). A fascinating but sobering account of an environmental cataclysm that transformed the Great Plains into a kind of malevolent Sahara, The Dust Bowl shows people caught in a climate shift so destructive and terrifying it seemed a sign of divine wrath—possibly even a harbinger of apocalypse.

Today, many of us would view the phenomenon through a different lens. As the film explains through voiceover narrative, seamlessly interwoven with scholarly interviews and bracing testimony from Dust Bowl survivors, the ecological disaster on America’s prairies in the...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.