Ken Burns: Before Sandy, There Was the Dust Bowl

The filmmaker talks about the worst man-made ecological disaster in US history, and what it teaches us about future climate catastrophes.

As the East Coast licks its wounds from Superstorm Sandy, many in New York and New Jersey are still without power, wondering how on earth it got this bad. Ken Burns, the great innovator of the American documentary, thinks this the perfect time to seek some wisdom from generations past.

His new film, The Dust Bowl, tells the story of the the worst man-made ecological disaster in US history. For it, Burns and and his team tracked down the last remaining survivors of the catastrophic dust storms of the 1930s and matched their intimate stories (most were children at the time) with lush archival footage.

When I caught up with Burns in New York City, he drew comparisons between what happened then and what is happening now—and how we can prevent future Dust Bowls and Sandys.

The Dust Bowl airs November 18 and 19 on PBS.

(A side note: As if interviewing one of my filmmaking heroes at the studios of another intimidatingly cool mega-personality (Stephen Colbert) wasn’t nerve-racking enough, running out of AA batteries before the interview was simply mortifying. Way embarrassing. Thank you Colbert Nation for your emergency supplies, and for rescuing what credibility I had left.)

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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