The grass is green in Liberal, Kan. In Amarillo, Texas, a meteorologist says, "We're in good shape." Folks in Beaver, Okla., were inundated last week by six inches of rain from a single storm.

As much of the nation is parched by drought, much of the Dust Bowl - the 97 million-acre confluence of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas that turned to desert a half century ago - has been spared."We're above seasonal rainfall. We're in good shape, very good shape," said Gary Hartley of the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

But blue skies and healthy crops give little comfort to Gilbert Steinkuehler, 73. He was a teenager in the 1930s, working on the family farm in Goodwell, Okla., when the region suffered an extended drought.

Fertile soil dried to fine dust that was picked up by scouring winds, creating black blizzards that rolled across the plains. Millions of tons of topsoil were simply lifted off the land.

And Steinkuehler is certain the same conditions could bring those days back again. "There's not much you can do when there's no water," he said.

In 1932 and 1933, the annual rainfall in Goodwell was nine inches below average. "For seven or eight years, we had no crops," Steinkuehler said.

For much of the '30s, street lights illuminated the thoroughfares of the Dust Bowl at midday. Trains collided in dust clouds. Chickens roosted at noon.

"The dawn came, but no day," wrote John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath," the classic novel of the Dust Bowl.

Homemakers in the Dust Bowl turned plates and cups upside down on the table until meals were served, to keep them clean. In 1935, an enterprising carpet sweeper used his vacuum to clean attics; he removed an average of two tons of dust from each of 227 attics in southwestern Kansas.

"All we could do was just sit in our dusty chairs and gaze at each other through the fog that filled the room and watch the fog settle slowly and silently, covering everything," said one woman from Garden City, Kan.

Shutting doors and windows tightly didn't help. After the storm, "Our faces were as dirty as if we had rolled in the dirt; our hair was gray and stiff and we ground dirt between our teeth," she said.

Texas state senators wore surgical masks while debating legislation. Respiratory infections claimed scores of lives, especially among the very old and very young. Others died: a young boy walking home from school near Hays, Kan., lost his way. He was found smothered by dust the next day.

"We long for the garden and little chickens, the trees and birds and wildflowers of the years gone by. Perhaps if we do our part these good things may return someday, for others if not ourselves," wrote Caroline A. Henderson, a 28-year-old resident of Alva, Okla., in 1936.

Some, like Steinbeck's Joad family, couldn't wait. In 1936, a survey found that one in four dwellings in 45 Dust Bowl counties had been vacated in the previous three years. In six townships of Oklahoma's Cimarron County, all but three of the 40 farm families left for wetter parts.

The Dust Bowl lost people, but it also lost soil at a rate of 850,000,000 tons a year. On April 12, 1934, a storm removed 300 million tons of soil; within days, that dust left a film on the president's desk in Washington, on store shelves in New York City and on ships 500 miles out in the Atlantic.

R. Douglas Hurt, associate director of the Missouri State Historical Society and author of "The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History," says droughts in that area are cyclical, and the local soil is of a type that tends to break down into tiny particles in the absence of moisture.

The big dust storms of the 1930s, Hurt says, can be traced to World War I, when wheat prices soared. Prices dropped during the early 1920s, and farmers tried to recoup by planting more fields, aided by new power machinery.

In so doing, Hurt says, the farmers also were planting the seeds of their own destruction. Once the sod was broken and the soil was plowed repeatedly, it was exposed to the wind; the drought came, the crops died, and without roots to hold the soil, it blew away.

In the best of times, relatively few farmers practiced soil conservation measures such as terracing and strip cropping, Hurt says. But then a bumper wheat crop in 1931 caused prices to drop, and even good farmers put aside conservation measures to try to grow more wheat.

Could it happen again?

"I think it's possible, but I also think it's unlikely if farmers have learned anything from the past, and I think they have. Farmers today have the technical capabilities to handle their fields properly," said Hurt.

Soil conservation has become a fact of life; irrigation is more prevalent, and land-grant universities have brought forth a different kind of farmer. "I think our farmers are too well educated to let it happen again," said Emma Love, 89, a Oklahoma Panhandle resident since 1905.

Love remembers "days as black as night." Her father was in real estate, and "our real estate sure was blowing around."

She remembers the time her mother went to a jackrabbit roundup - the creatures proliferated during the dirty '30s - and was caught in a duster: "She told God that if she got out of it, she'd never go to another."

She looks around today, and sees Dust Bowl survivors who stuck it out. They and their children, she says, know enough to protect the land.

Still, she said, "If there's someone who isn't taking care of his land, that place blows."