FORT WORTH, Texas -- We've all heard stories about the Dust Bowl, the devastating decade-long drought of the 1930s.
But documentary filmmaker Ken Burns maintains that the Dust Bowl is, for the most part, a forgotten chapter of American history.
"For most people, the Dust Bowl can be summed up with some very superficial conventional wisdom, as bad storms and 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" he says. "The story is a lot more complex than that."
"The Dust Bowl," Burns' two-night, four-hour documentary, airing at 8 p.m. Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS, is provocative and enlightening. It will set the record straight once and for all.
The filmmaker and his team conducted poignant interviews with dozens of people, now in their 80s and 90s, who lived to tell about enduring the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history.
Their suffering was magnified because it coincided with the economic blow of the Great Depression.
That said, viewers won't fully appreciate the magnitude of the Dust Bowl until footage taken by an amateur filmmaker of the day is shown. In grainy black-and-white, we see a monster dust storm, hundreds of feet high, as it approaches and envelops a small town, snuffing out the sun at noon.
Seeing is believing.
To categorize this American tragedy as a decade of "bad storms" is comparable to saying that Hurricane Sandy caused a little wind and water damage.
"This was a 10-year apocalypse filled with hundreds of storms, some of which moved more dirt in one day than it took the entire excavation of the Panama Canal to move," Burns says. "For the people who lived through it, it was suffering overlaid on suffering."
The Dust Bowl tragedy was the result of extreme drought conditions, but also was a manmade catastrophe.
Before the arrival of settlers in the late 19th century, the southern plains of the United States were predominantly grasslands. But at the start of the 1900s, offers of cheap land attracted farmers. And in World War I, in the midst of a relatively wet period, a lucrative new wheat market opened up.