There's a scary scene in the recent sci-fi film Prometheus in which a giant storm suddenly boils up on an alien planet, sending the astronauts fleeing for their lives.
The archival footage of these towering dust storms, sometimes referred to as black blizzards, sweeping across the prairie at 60 m.p.h. and blotting out the sun, is no less intense.
Years of drought and wind swept away the topsoil, leaving the stubborn and self-sufficient farmers of the region with no food, money, resources, or hope.
Burns has assembled a number of older people who grew up in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and eastern Colorado during that fearsome era to share their stories of survival.
"We ate so poorly," recalls Clarence Beck, a native of Cimarron County, Oklahoma, "that the hoboes wouldn't come to our house. I was down to eating lard and bread."
(Beck has passed away since the making of The Dust Bowl.)
Some of the most striking images in The Dust Bowl - whether still or moving - capture people in goggles and masks, gear needed to venture outside. And women sweeping piles of sand out their front doors, sand that has accumulated just overnight.
You also learn some unusual facts, for instance that heavy static electricity built up just before the storms hit.
There was a widespread respiratory ailment, particularly deadly to young children, that plagued the area and was known as "dust pneumonia."
The second chapter on Monday night (8 p.m.), "Reaping the Whirlwind," is slower and less informative. But it does devote a scenic detour to Woody Guthrie, an itinerant songwriter turned activist.
A number of Woody's songs are used, among them a Library of Congress recording of his rambling spoken prologue to and performance of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You (Dusty Old Dust)."
The second half of the project looks at the social impact of the drought and the migration of indigent workers to California, where they were frequently scorned as Okies.
As is his custom, Burns tries to frame up the historical sprawl with personal stories. The tactic is sometimes successful and sometimes strained.
Also standard for the filmmaker: a chorus of historians providing insights. The most persuasive voice is that of Timothy Egan, who won the National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.
The film ends with an almost pro forma cautionary note: Are we messing with Mother Nature in the same sandbox again? Have we already forgotten the resounding, undeniable lessons of the Dust Bowl?
Cue the tumbleweeds.
Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv.
The Dust Bowl
8 p.m. Sunday and Monday on WHYY12