New York City was dirty.
Fueled by rapid industrial and population growth, by the early 1930s New York City had swelled to almost seven million people. Immigrants seeking a better life, rural Americans seeking better pay, and hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life seeking the fun, excitement, and culture of a city that never sleeps had the Big Apple expanding, expounding, exploding…and getting filthier by the day.
Waste from the thousands of shops and businesses (not to mention homes and apartments) flowed freely. The sanitation department was still primitive, decades away from the modernization we have now, and they simply couldn’t keep up with the garbage and sewage. The city, for all its glamour and prestige, literally stunk.
And it wasn’t just the streets: auto exhaust and factory emissions created a perpetual haze in the air, severe enough that many doctors began advising those with respiratory ailments to move west, out of the city and away from the rapid urbanization of the East Coast in general. On a typical day, the smog measured 227 particles per square millimeter, way above the “healthy” levels of 50-100.
But, to the people of New York, it was normal. A small price to pay for the prestige and promise of the greatest city in the world. The Great Depression was here too but, if you had to suffer through times of want and need, why not do it where the streets still buzzed with the hope and hint of better days to come? The other problems of the 1930s–those rumors of drought and dust–were for other people, those backward bumpkins of the Great Plains who’d settled in the wrong part of the country.
All of that began to change on May 9, 1934. Thousands of miles from the heart of New York City, and even further from the minds of its inhabitants, the winds above the plains of the Dakotas and eastern Montana began to swirl, kicking up mounds of red and black dust. The next day, loaded with millions of tons of prairie soil, the winds shifted their course east, combining with the jet stream to gain strength before descending over the Midwest. In Chicago alone, the storm deposited twelve million pounds of dust, coating the walls and floors of every building and forcing pilots trying to land at Chicago Municipal Airport to abort, many of them having to climb to an altitude of over 15,000 feet to get above the storm.
By the following morning, the storm had moved over Pittsburgh, creating a haze so thick that visibility was reduced to only a mile, and Scranton, where initial reports of snow in May turned out to be dust. By the time it reached the eastern seaboard, enveloping cities like Boston, Washington D.C., and New York in darkness, the storm had traveled over 2,000 miles and was over 1,800 miles wide, carrying an estimated 350 million tons of dust. Washington Post reporter George Will described it as a “great rectangle of dust,” which stretched from the Great Plains to the Atlantic.
The wall of dust blocked out the sun, casting an eerie shadow over the city like that of a solar eclipse. Street lights in Manhattan flickered on in the middle of the day. Automobiles needed headlights to navigate through the fog. Tourists enjoying the view from the top of the Empire State Building were aghast at the sudden change in the scene below them; instead of miles and miles of skyscrapers and streets, they saw nothing but a cloud as thick as soup.
The New York Times reported that “dust lodged itself in the eyes and throats of weeping and coughing New Yorkers,” sending thousands to area hospitals in a panic. Air filters in buildings were changed hourly, but still the dust seeped in, laying a layer of fine brown film over balconies, windows, and floors. In a city accustomed to un-breathable air, May 11, 1934 brought in the worst air quality reading it had ever seen: 619 million particles per square millimeter, over six times the normal “healthy” limit.
In the harbor, dust shrouded the Statue of Liberty and turned the water gray. Ships bobbed blindly, unable to dock due to lack of visibility. Even boats over two hundred miles out at sea reported dust collecting on their decks.
The storm lingered over New York for five hours and the region for two days, spreading southward to fall on the National Mall and infiltrating the White House and the Capitol building where, ironically, President Roosevelt and members of Congress were debating measures of drought relief for the Plains. The next day, the New York Times declared it to be “the greatest dust storm in United States history.”
It wasn’t, of course. Many more storms had plagued the Great Plains over the past few years, some of them bigger, more fierce, and carrying more dirt. But, to the people of New York and the entire East Coast, this storm was a real taste of what the “rest” of the country was dealing with on a daily basis. The drought and the dust were no longer a rural problem, a Plains problem, or even just a farmers’ problem–they were America’s problem. Forced with a firsthand account of the enormity and devastation dirt can havoc, public outcry and concern spurred Roosevelt into action. “Waiting out the drought” was no longer an option, not for the Plains, not for Washington, and not for the East Coast. A solution was needed, and it was needed now.