Can it happen again?
So what can be done to prevent another Dust Bowl disaster?
Rains from Hurricane Isaac might have made headlines, but they alone won't make a dent in the drought. Ironically, the Dust Bowl era had wet spells, too -- including flash floods in the Great Plains -- though they did not alter the devastating equation much, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist Brad Rippey.
What farmers and ranchers do have working in their favor, compared to the 1930s, are new tools, techniques and other developments that help them better manage droughts, storms and other harsh weather realities.
Svoboda, with the National Drought Mitigation Center, rattles off several such changes -- from more effective soil preservation measures to hybrid seeds to the inception of center pivot irrigation. He adds, too, that things like cell phones and computers make it easier for farmers, ranchers and others to understand what's coming, then adjust.
And the most significant difference between the 1930s and today -- and the main reason for hope that it won't be as bad -- is time. The Dust Bowl era is generally defined as an eight-year stretch; while parts of Oklahoma and Texas are in the second year of drought, the rest of the United States is in its first.
In other words, there's still a long way to go.
If the precipitation picks up, "row farmers" cultivating crops like corn, soy beans and sorghum using modern farming practices should be able to recover next year.
"If they have a normal rain pattern, it's basically a zero recovery period," said Rippey. "You are going from a (devastated) 2012 crop to normal."
But those raising livestock may feel the effects of this drought for longer, even if there's more rain. Some strained pastureland and hay fields may revive with above average, more sustained rainfalls than ordinary. But other lands may be a lost cause, with replanting the only way to save them. Peel called the next one to two months "critical," as some rain soon may help save these lands so ranchers do not have to start from scratch.
Still, even if their pastures improve or hay prices drop, those who sold off many of their livestock in recent years likely cannot afford to buy the same number back, and return to normal, anytime soon.
"Grazing and ranching are totally at the mercy of rain-fed crops and pastures," said Svoboda, pointing especially to the susceptibility of grass and hay to a lack of moisture and excess of heat. "They just don't control those factors at all."
If drought conditions do persist, they can have a steamroller effect. "The suns' rays are more efficient (when) you have parched soils," said Rippey, the USDA meteorologist, adding that it becomes harder for new moisture to make an immediate impact.
"These droughts, when they tend to go multiple years, it really starts to feed on itself," adds Svoboda.
We haven't got there quite yet, but we could be if more precipitation doesn't fall over the Great Plains and beyond.
As they try to predict the drought's future, meteorologists say they will look first to whether this fall and winter are wetter and cooler than last year, hoping that it will saturate soils and rivers and spur a wetter trend that continues into next spring and summer.
As is, some states out west had two straight La Nina winters that "tend to really suck you dry," Svoboda explained. Typically lasting a year or two, La Nina is characterized by cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean that has a domino effect on global weather -- leading to more rainfall than normal in some locales and drought in others.
"If we had a third consecutive La Nina, there are some statistics that would be scary," he added. "But the odds of La Nina (continuing) are very small right now."
Still, no one predicted practically a full decade of minimal rain, maximum heat during the Dust Bowl era either. The fact is, for all the forecasts and farming innovations, keeping one's fingers crossed for change in the weather may be as useful as anything else.
"Right now, it's just a question of Mother Nature giving us a break," said Derrell Peel, from Oklahoma State.