Lessons from the Dust Bowl for Hurricane Survivors

Millions of people have been forced to evacuate their homes in Louisiana, Texas and other Gulf Coast communities because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But after this storm has cleared, there will be tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of people who either won't be able to or won't want to return home.

James Gregory, a history professor at the University of Washington, says Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will have a profound impact on American society.

"These are going to be very long-lasting changes in America," said Gregory. "The people who are leaving their homes, will take years to resettle. The Gulf states are going to take years and years to rebuild. They won't be rebuilt in the same way. This is a permanent effect on American society."

A massive displacement of people has occurred before in American history. In the early 1930s, the Dust Bowl prompted an enormous migration of Americans west to the promised land of California.

There are differences between that migration and this one: Americans were uprooted slowly, over years, during the Dust Bowl era; they were rural and mainly white. Katrina has created a sudden displacement of people, mostly urban and black. But what we learned from the Dust Bowl migration may offer lessons on what will happen to the people who are displaced today.

Lessons from the Dust Bowl

It's a lasting images from the Dust Bowl years -- the cars full of people that author John Steinbeck described as "lonely and perplexed because they had come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were going to a new, mysterious place."

In the 1930s, ferocious winds carried dust that wiped out farms and family incomes for many people in the Great Plains states. The dust storms took away their livelihoods, and in many cases, their pride.

Pauline Hodges was a young girl during the Dust Bowl years and said she saw many men begin drinking to cope. "My father, I don't know that he became an alcoholic, but he, like other men who lost everything, began to drink," Hodges said. "I thought about that a lot, at the number of men who drank who later quit, who told me they weren't really alcoholics but it was a way to escape the humiliation of losing everything."

Hundreds of thousands of people fled the region, but once they were on the road or moving into California or Arizona, there was very little help for people, said University of Washington historian James Gregory.

"The federal government made some serious mistakes in the '30s," said Gregory, who has written a book about the Dust Bowl migration. "And we have to hope that they don't repeat that mistake, set of mistakes, this time around. The biggest mistake was to expect that California and other communities could handle hundreds of thousands of poor people entering their communities, without significant help from the federal government."

That's one of the reasons why so many resentments built up against people from the Southwest who collectively were disparaged as "Okies" when they arrived in California.

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