By SEAN MURPHY
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Virginia Jett was just a child when an ominous black cloud stretching across the horizon came rolling toward her family's little sod farmhouse in the Oklahoma Panhandle, but it's a memory she'll never shake.
"We looked up and saw this cloud rolling in over the hill that wasn't too far from where we were. I remember seeing the birds flying above it," Jett, now 80, recalled. "My sister, who wasn't quite 7, grabbed us and we ran as fast as we could to the house. It made quite an impression on me."
The day in April 1935 became known as Black Sunday and was during the peak of the greatest manmade disaster in the country's history, when a combination of drought and high winds pulled up thousands of tons of over-farmed prairie land in the Southern Plains and whipped it into the air. The region that includes the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and nearby portions of Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico became known as the Dust Bowl, which is the subject of a four-hour documentary by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns that looks at the environmental catastrophe and the people who survived it.
"It's just a hell of a great story," Burns said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "Americans like apocalyptic tales, and this is a home-grown apocalypse. It's not '2012' with John Cusack jumping across fissures in the earth. These are real live people, people you might have had Thanksgiving dinner with."
The two-part documentary, which is scheduled to air on PBS in the fall, brought Burns and his filmmaking crew to the Oklahoma Panhandle, where they interviewed dozens of Dust Bowl survivors and uncovered troves of never-before-seen photographs and homemade films that are included in the project.
The harrowing stories of survival through the tough times of the destruction of farmland and the Great Depression are documented "from the bottom up" by the people who lived through them, Burns said.
"More than anything it's an oral history," said Burns, whose award winning documentary films include "The Civil War," ''Baseball," and "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."
"History always offers us lessons about heroic behavior. We always think heroic behavior comes from great men, but it really comes from so-called ordinary people."
The Dust Bowl also led to a massive migration of Oklahoma and Texas farmers out of the region, many of whom traveled to California in search of jobs. Burns said he and his crew also traveled to California's Central Valley where some Oklahoma natives had moved and settled to hear their accounts.
And while the Dust Bowl-era was a difficult time for those who lived through it, it also spawned major changes in farming procedures, soil conservation techniques and plowing practices that helped revitalize the agriculture industry, said Michael Dean, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Historical Society. A federal program also was launched to plant millions of trees to serve as a wind break and help retain moisture in the soil.
"One of the outcomes of the Dust Bowl was a change in the way farming was conducted in that part of the Southern Plains," Dean said. "They started rotating crops, they started changing the ways and the times that they plowed up the ground in order to cut back on wind erosion, and the way they ran their farms from a business standpoint."
The hard times also left an indelible impression on those who remained in the region, said Irvin "Gene" Huddleston, who still lives just a few miles from the farm house where he grew up near Slapout in Beaver County.
"I imagine it made the whole country pretty tough," said Huddleston, 85. "There's some people that left here and went west.
"The ones that stayed here, it probably made them better people."
PBS Pressroom: http://pressroom.pbs.org/Programs/d/Dust-Bowl.aspx
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.