Sunday, January 3, 2010

The 1930s Dust Bowl and Katrina: Environmental Refugees

“Environmental Refugees” as defined by Wall Street Journal columnist, Cynthia Crossen, are thousands, perhaps millions of people forced from their homes and communities because of a natural disaster. This is certainly true of American citizens who have been fleeing for their lives since the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. But it is not the first time in American history that an environmental disaster forced Americans from their homes. Over seventy years ago, the draught that devastated the farming culture in the Great Plains of the American West, augmented by an Economic Depression, forced thousands of Environmental Refugees from their homes; all poor, desperate, hungry and looking for work.

Since the first settler put down roots in the semi-arid regions of the Southern Plains in the late nineteenth century, farming was a risky business dependent on the whims of nature. Encouraged by good years and sufficient moisture, farmers prospered. But, without adequate rain and very little irrigation, the dry years were difficult and brought too many foreclosures. When the devastating drought of the late 1920s continued year after year, the farmlands of Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas became cracked and barren. And, dust storms added insult to injury by picking up the precious topsoil and depositing it as far away as the decks of ships off the Atlantic Coast.

Hundreds of thousands of residents of the Dust Bowl region packed up their meager belongings, piled them in their old trucks and headed to what must have seemed like the promised land--California. On their way, these Environmental Refugees met others on the road heading to the same salvation. They believed the rumors that in California there were jobs, places to live and schools for their children. What the refugees found in California was not the numerous jobs as advertised by fruit growers, but a lot of hostility.

There are a lot of differences between those displaced by the environmental disaster caused by drought and dust storms, and those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. For one, once the mechanisms of government started to offer aid to hurricane victims the suffering began to subside. Those who are benefiting from government aid and relief in 2005 can thank the environmental disaster of the early 1930s. Americans learned from the anguish of Dust Bowl refugees that we all have responsibility, whether through tax dollars, giving to charitable and humanitarian organization, or as volunteers, to aid fellow Americans. This was not the case in 1930.

Californians were very concerned about the “Thousands of indigents from the Middle West” flooding into their state and causing “increasing relief burdens.” Los Angeles officials noted that in one twelve-month period 2,946,614 people entered California by automobile. The relief cost in Los Angeles county had increased three-fold in a few short years. Conferences were called where state and city officials came together to discuss the impact of the “indigents” on the state. Besides the obvious strain on meager relief funds, epidemics and the general “character” of the new immigrants were also of concern.

It was not in the American mind in the early 1930s to “hand out” financial relief to those who were unemployed. The thought being that the recipient of the funds would become lazy and lose their will to take care of themselves and their families. It took the Economic Depression of the early 1930s and an environment catastrophe, as witnessed in the Southern Plains, for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration to experiment with various ways in which the Federal government could offer aid to the millions of Americans in need. The results of those programs were born out of necessity.

There is much talk today in the aftermath of Katrina to whether it is wise to rebuild New Orleans so that those who evacuated can return to their homes. It is assumed that those who were finding it difficult to survive before the hurricane will want to return and continue the struggle. Many of the Okies and Arkies who fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s never returned to their homes and farms. Instead they settled in the rich farming land of the San Joaquin Valley of central California, where they had more prosperous opportunities. Perhaps many of those who fled Katrina will also find better opportunities in the various states where they are now making an adjustment and forging a new life.

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