A dust storm hit, an' it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an' it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic an' blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run…
That's how folksinger Woody Guthrie described the walls of airborne earth that rolled across the Texas Panhandle during the drought-ravaged 1930s. But he could easily have been singing about the duster that blew into western Oklahoma's Cimarron County, the geographic heart of the Dust Bowl, from southeastern Colorado this Jan. 12. "From a distance, it looked like a storm coming in, but it was all dirt," says the local conservation district's Iris Imler, and gusts surpassing 50 mph piled so many tumbleweeds in Boise City that at least one road had to be plowed.
Despite a much-needed infusion of moisture last fall, pockets of the Southern High Plains are still locked in such extreme drought that topsoil from farm fields and some rangelands takes flight with every strong, sustained wind. And while the decades of the '30s and the '50s had more total drought years, Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken says a Rocky Ford weather station shows that, so far, the last three years are the three driest in a row in that town's recorded history. Meanwhile, since October, drifts of tumbleweeds have blocked 42 miles of roads in Crowley County, Colo. "The 12 counties around us are just as inundated," says commissioner Tobe Allumbaugh, and clearing them isn't easy: "It's like trying to round up balloons."