Advances in gasoline-powered farm machinery made production fast and easier. During the 1920s, millions of acres of grassland across the plains were converted into wheat fields at an unprecedented rate.
Then, in 1930, wheat prices collapsed. In response, farmers harvested even more wheat to make up for their losses, leaving fields exposed and vulnerable to drought -- and one hit in 1932.
Once the winds began picking up dust from the open fields, they grew into dust storms that became more frequent and ferocious every year. Not only were crops destroyed and cattle killed, but children developed fatal cases of "dust pneumonia."
Thousands of Americans were forced to move to more livable locations, an exodus unlike anything the United States had ever seen.
"But this is also a story of heroic perseverance in the face of biblical plagues," Burns says. "In the end, in the area once known as No Man's Land, because no one thought it would ever be suitable for human habitation, three-fourths of the people actually hung on.
"That's a testament to a gritty -- no pun intended -- American spirit."
The timing of this documentary couldn't be better.
First of all, the film comes along at a time when the oral history of the Dust Bowl is about to be lost forever. Except for one on-camera interview with a Dust Bowl survivor who was an adult in the 1930s, everyone else sharing their stories were children or teenagers at the time.
Wait much longer and there might be no one left to share a first-person account.
The film also is of interest because it addresses a very timely issue, suggesting that we're on a path to creating another great calamity in the same area.
"One of the things that mitigated the Dust Bowl was not just the return of wetter weather and smarter soil conservation and contour farming techniques," Burns says, "but it was also our technological ability to poke a million straws into the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which was filled with glacial melt.
"But this is not a sustainable water supply. It's not a reservoir that refills up with snow melt and rainwater. This is a case of us mining for water. The Pollyannas among us say there is 50 years of water left. The Cassandras among us say there are only 20 years left. Whoever is right, we're going to run out.
"And then what do we do? Is there any contingency for what happens when the Ogallala runs dry? Are we prepared to permit an American Sahara Desert to sprout up in the Southern Plains?"