Dust cloud approaching, Boise City, Oklahoma, April 15, 1935 Dust cloud approaching, Boise City, Oklahoma, April 15, 1935

The iconic photos from the southern plains states during the Great Depression say it all: the haunted eyes of weary mothers, children with their faces wrapped against the choking dust and families piling their belongings into trucks and heading to California.

In the two-part documentary The Dust Bowl, filmmaker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Prohibition) focuses on the nearly decade-long drought that, coupled with unsustainable farming techniques, destroyed millions of acres in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. "It was the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history," Burns says. "Franklin Roosevelt could sweep his finger across his Oval Office desk and come up with a little bit of Oklahoma."

Through archival photos, vintage newsreels and interviews with dozens of elderly survivors, Burns tells the harrowing, ultimately inspiring tale (narrated by Peter Coyote). "This will be the last time anybody is able to record a firsthand story of what happened," he says.

Though there are no "hard and fast villains," Burns notes, many preventable mistakes were made. "The government encouraged the settlement of dry areas that shouldn't have been [farmed]," he says. "Land speculators moved in and raised prices exorbitantly, and absentee farmers left their exposed land to blow on neighbors."

"But," he continues, "it's also a story of the extraordinary forces that came together, mainly from the government, to help save the region." Because of technological advances, the southern plains land is once again a fertile breadbasket, but its future is still uncertain.

"The area gets its water from the vast underground Ogallala Aquifer that even the optimistic know will run out within our children's lifetimes," Burns says, adding that "black blizzards" created by droughts are still a threat. "There was a recent dust storm in Oklahoma that caused a multi-car accident," he says. "With climate change and other ecosystems on the brink of collapse, let us hope that the Depression Dust Bowl remains our worst ecological disaster."

The Dust Bowl airs Sunday and Monday at 8/7c on PBS (check tvguide.com local listings).

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