Oppressive heat continues to bake Southeast farmland

Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Soaring temps jeopardize crops

Alabama farmer Jerry Byrd can only watch as his livelihood withers away.

Extreme heat this week is compounding severe drought conditions along the nation's northern Gulf Coast. For Mr. Byrd, the combination is destroying the soybean, cotton and peanut crops on his 1,700-acre Dale County farm.

The conditions are the worst he has weathered in almost 30 years of farming.

"I've run out of water," he said. "And when I can run the irrigation equipment, the next day, the water evaporates – it doesn't even look like I did anything. There's not much to salvage anymore."

States throughout the South, especially Alabama, Louisiana and Florida's panhandle, are roasting under triple-digit heat, with no relief expected soon. Conversely, cold air is moving through the northern Midwest, with temperatures in some cities plummeting below freezing.

Record high temperatures during four of the past five days were recorded in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where it reached 104 degrees Wednesday. In each of the past 15 days, the mercury there has surpassed 100 degrees, far beyond what is normal.

In Jackson, Miss., and Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., the temperature Wednesday reached 100. And in Mobile, Ala., it was 99.

An area of high pressure over the Midwest is the primary culprit, spiking temperatures and preventing rainfall, said Rick Smith, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's southwest region headquarters.

"This heat is very dangerous," Mr. Smith said. "It can kill."

It has, too.

Heat is being blamed for 12 deaths in Texas and at least six in Alabama and Louisiana. Health officials in some states say they won't know how many people have died from sweltering temperatures until autopsies are complete.

High humidity is making heat in the Southeast even deadlier than the dry heat of the Southwest. Weather watchers there are recording heat index factors – how hot the air temperature feels when combined with humidity – in the 110s and even 120s, Mr. Smith said.

Any reading more than 105 is considered a health hazard, he said. The heat index in most of the Southwest has been at 105 degrees or slightly lower.

In response to damage from the extreme weather, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared all 67 Alabama counties disaster areas, freeing up federal funds for relief to farmers and other businessesdevastated by heat and drought.

State officials have estimated crop loss in excess of $360 million. More than half of the state's hay and nearly half of the state's corn and peanut crops will be lost, Alabama Farmers Federation spokesman Jeff Holmes said.

"Our resources are pretty much exhausted," said Ralph Holmes, an Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries spokesman. "And with this heat wave now, we've pretty much written off our row crops."

If this type of weather continues, farmers will begin to write off their businesses, said Steve Dunn, an Alabama rancher.

"I'll be getting another job where I know I get a paycheck," said Mr. Dunn, who estimates his crop loss at about 65 percent. "I've been farming for 30 years, and I've never been in this situation before."

La Niña, the recurring weather phenomena in Pacific Ocean waters, is contributing to the heat wave by causing an overall warming in the Southeast, Mr. Smith said. La Niña, when active like it is this year, generates unusually warm temperatures in the Southeast. The Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes region experience cooler-than-normal temperatures.

This held true in Tower, Minn., where the temperature dropped Wednesday to 29 degrees.

"We're talking two totally different worlds here, north and south" said Sam Standfield, a National Weather Service hydrometeorlogical technician in Duluth, Minn. "We wish we could send a little bit of it south."

So does Mr. Byrd.

"This is going to affect us terribly if the weather doesn't change," he said. "We're running out of time."