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High & dry

Climate | Record heat and a drought that won't end are hurting livestock and lives

Issue: "Help on the inside," Aug. 12, 2006

Paul Penner doesn't have to look at a crop to tell how it's faring. These days when the Kansas wheat farmer catches a whiff of a scorched cornfield that smells like curing hay he knows the crop's fate: It's already dying.

Penner didn't plant corn this year, but without it he has troubles enough of his own: His prairie hayfields have produced half their usual tonnage. Other farmers are worried about cotton and beans. Penner, secretary of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, is one of thousands of U.S. farmers suffering painful losses on two counts: this summer's heat wave and a drought that just won't end.

Record-breaking temperatures have blistered regions across the country over the last few weeks:

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•Wichita, Kan., 108 degrees

•Bismarck, N.D., 112

•Phoenix hit 118 on July 21, making it one of the 11 hottest days on record in the city.

•By the end of July, Oklahoma City had reached triple-digit temperatures 17 times this year, compared with just twice last year, and not at all in 2004.

By early August, the heat moved east: New York City and Chicago hit 100, and Baltimore and Washington, D.C., neared triple digits. Stifling humidity produced soaring heat indexes: In Philadelphia the mercury reached 97, but it felt like 110. In Conyers, Ga., when the heat index topped 100, a high-school football player died after collapsing at practice.

Power outages compounded sweltering conditions: As temperatures shot up in Queens, N.Y., power usage did too, and a resulting blackout left 100,000 residents without power for 10 days. In St. Louis, where temperatures reached 100 degrees, a massive thunderstorm knocked out power to some 700,000 customers. In both cities, churches, senior centers, and government buildings opened their doors as "cooling centers" to thousands of locals who rested in air conditioning and found plenty of food and water.

The Salvation Army of St. Louis served more than 65,000 meals to blackout victims and provided emergency shelter to more than 1,000. Volunteers went door-to-door checking on elderly residents most vulnerable to the sweltering conditions. Missouri officials said at least 14 people had died because of the heat.

California suffered the most severe losses, reporting at least 163 heat-related fatalities after temperatures reached 115 degrees in the central portion of the state. In Fresno County, heat-related deaths exceeded the morgue's capacity, and workers resorted to piling up bodies in the walk-in freezer. "It's never been like this in my years here," said Coroner Loralee Cervantes. "This is really tragic."

The triple-digit temperatures were deadly for California's livestock as well. Though farmers tried to keep animals cool with fans and misting machines, the heat killed 25,000 cattle and 700,000 fowl during the last two weeks of July, according to industry experts.

California leads the nation in dairy production, but the California Farm Bureau said production had dropped by 15 percent during a one-week period in July.

The severe heat has also compounded long-standing drought conditions across the West and Great Plains, and delivered a blow to thousands more farmers. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently rated 55 percent of South Dakota's wheat crop as poor or very poor. It gave the same rating to 34 percent of the state's corn harvest. Agriculture experts at Texas A&M University predicted Texas' cotton harvest would drop by 50 percent this year.

USDA has declared dozens of counties in Colorado, Oregon, Nebraska, and Texas as natural disaster areas because of the heat and drought, allowing farmers to apply for low-interest emergency loans.

Kansas Farm Bureau spokesman Mike Matson told WORLD that an estimated 60,000 farmers in Kansas have been suffering from drought for nearly six years. "The hot weather," he said, "has made a bad situation worse." Kansas is the nation's No. 1 producer of wheat, and though it's still unclear how much damage the harvest has suffered this year, Matson says, "It's clearly not as successful as in recent years."

Many smaller farms especially are losing crops and money because of the drought, says Matson, and this year's heat adds "one more nail in the coffin for individual producers."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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