How do you draw the line of when the ending began?
Was the severe drought the drained the aquifer in California and led to the destruction of thousands of acres of almond trees the first sign of what was to come? Or was it just one of many, or not even a part? Was the first town destroyed by tornadoes and storms, the one that was never rebuilt, the true beginning of the outlands?
Take your pick.
What is certain is that the outlands began because the land and weather wouldn’t support people. Drought stripped the moisture from the surface. Wells pumped the aquifers dry. Wind sent clouds of topsoil barreling across the plains. Sometimes you couldn’t tell if the black clouds coming were born of soil or from rampant weather. Both spawned tornadoes. One buried houses, roads, fences, livestock, and fields. The other ripped them apart.
Dust storms in the early 2010s elicited comparison to the Dust Bowl. By 2020, communities were unraveling. Droughts led to water wars between ag and cities. Politicians were the only winners of the fight as reservoirs and aquifers shrank. When rain came, it fell by the inches and caused hurtling floods that ravaged land laid barren with lack of vegetation. Mud floods ate cars, roads, and fields while skies broke with lightning. When a tornado tore apart a farm or town, it felt like the final act of a long, slow death. People stopped rebuilding.
The census of 2030 showed the trend in numbers. People were draining out of the most drought stricken areas. Cities absorbed new arrivals, but provided scant resources. Farms were failing as the land dried. Food was rationed to those who couldn’t afford it, until no one could really afford it. But this isn’t the tale of what happened in the cities. This is the story of the countryside of the US.
By 2039 when Harvey’s flu spread outward from the suffering midwest, many towns already teetered on insolvency. Lack of available manpower impacted care for those afflicted with Harvey’s flu, resulting in swamped, understaffed hospitals, scant care or followup to those bedridden, and poor emergency response. Deaths due to secondary infections and even hunger were nearly as high as those from the flu. The countryside lost more people.
By the early 2040s, entire towns folded due to lack of work, lack of water, and lack of workers to provide needed functions from garbage disposal to nursing. Special pay went to individuals willing to man fuel outposts across the tortured landscape so that commerce could continue coast to coast. Except for the throughways and railroads, roads disappeared under dust storms.
A hardiness and sense of lack of dependency for the resources that had once been common to any community in the US developed. If there was a fire, you had to be able to fight it yourself. Most people could handle stitching a bad wound. This was a frontier again. Choosing to stay was choosing a way of life. It was a worst case scenario when HALO hit in 2045.
Isolation might have saved some populations if HALO had been a virus. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t like anything before. The diaspores danced across the windswept plains, uncaring about desiccation. The fungal bodies happily sprouted behind storms. HALO dissolved fragile communities. In its wake, large sections of states lay abandoned. In 2045 after those who survived HALO took stock of what was left, the word ‘Outlands’ was officially used to describe the places emptied of people.
It took time for any form of government, state or federal, to recover enough to care about what was going on in the Outlands. Hurricane Dexter in 2048 mobilized the military to take action when government and local law enforcement failed to tamp down the crises stretching from New York to Boston. The military didn’t stop there.
With many states and crumbled towns not really having anything resembling a government, the military stepped in – not just to enforce laws, but to organize and protect resources. Areas that were considered untenable due to poor infrastructure, living conditions, or inefficiency were ordered abandoned. Skilled farmers were given new land in areas still suited for crops or livestock, and were located closer to the cities that needed the food. The National Guard joined by the army successfully reorganized the areas with little to no government, dealing easily with the poorly organized individual resistance.
And then they turned their sights on the chaos spilling across the poorly managed cities.