Relief efforts intensify as rains don't quell Southern drought

BY SUSAN KIM | Austin, TX | March 15, 2000

Continuous heavy rains moving through Texas and Louisiana this week caused street flooding but have failed to make any dent in drought conditions.

Many residents confronted water-filled roads and yards, plus stiff winds, in Texas yesterday and Louisiana today. Some areas reported up to a foot of rain in a 24- hour period.

"There was a lot of wind blowing water away from the Gulf so the water wouldn't drain," said Fritz Parker, a United Methodist Committee on Relief volunteer based in Austin. Parker follows potential disaster situations so he can help coordinate faith-based response.

For some south Texas residents, the heavy rain brought back memories of fatal October 1998 flooding that killed 31 people and left thousands homeless throughout southwest Texas. Fortunately, this latest rain did not mar the recovery that is still ongoing from that flood, said J.C. Hull, executive director of the interfaith recovery coalition called DeWitt County Cares, Inc. That group has been coordinating volunteers who are helping to rebuild the hundreds of homes damaged in October 1998.

That flooding caused 32 Texas counties to be declared disaster zones, destroyed 2,733 structures, damaged 9,935 more, and caused $620.4 million in residential losses, along with $71.9 million in business losses, and $239.9 million in public property losses.

Hundreds of Texans were also forced to evacuate their homes last August when Tropical Storm Bret swept through the state.

Hull said the rains caused "a little aggravation" but no heavy residential flooding. "A lot of the jobs we're doing at this point are inside," he added.

But while the rain didn't cause residential damage in Texas or Louisiana, it also failed to quell drought conditions. Both Texas and Louisiana were listed in Monday's government drought forecast as one of 13 states that will be hardest hit by drought this spring.

That report, released jointly by the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, predicted that the drought that has gripped the south and mid-west is likely to intensify this spring.

"A lot of people really need the rain," said Hull. "Our disaster is leaning more toward drought."

This most recent rain is not likely to alleviate the dry conditions, said Ted Quaday, spokesperson for Farm Aid. "People think that once you get a rain like that, it solves the drought problem. It doesn't. You need a lot more rain to recharge the groundwater and the subsurface."

More than 60 percent of the winter wheat crop in Texas is rated no better than poor.

So far, drought and not flooding remains the concern, agreed Kathy Ozer from the National Family Farm Coalition based in Washington, DC. "The dry conditions will still result in a really bad crop year. Farmers are in a precarious situation as a result of the weather."

In Louisiana, during January and February, rainfall was 14 inches below normal, said Terry Thompson, public information officer for the Louisiana Emergency Management Agency. "Nobody here is complaining about water," he said.

Louisiana experienced its driest February in 106 years, as did Mississippi and Alabama.

Louisiana is also still recovering from a late January winter storm that damaged homes and businesses. "That recovery will be going on until about mid-year," said Thompson.

Besides Texas and Louisiana, other hard-hit states are expected to be Arizona, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, according to the drought forecast.

Stream flows east of the Mississippi River are well below normal for this time of the year. Scientists blame the dry weather on La Nina, the weather pattern related to cooler-than-normal temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. La Nina is expected to linger for at least several months.

This spring, which is predicted to be an unusually severe weather season across the south, also residents on alert for tornadoes. In Louisiana last spring, Easter weekend became a tragedy for many across the northwest portion of the state when a deadly tornado touched down near Shreveport and cut an 8-mile swath across the Red River that continued through major suburban subdivisions, including two mobile home parks.

In that tornado, six people died, more than 100 were injured, and more than 300 homes were destroyed.

Last weekend, severe storms stretched across the south from Texas to Alabama. Three tornadoes were reported in Alabama, and a funnel cloud was reported in Jackson County, Fla. in a far-reaching stretch of bad weather that included tornadoes, high winds, torrential rain, and hail. Some areas had as much as five inches of rain on Friday night alone.

Car accidents and flying debris brought tragedy when four people died in car wrecks due to wet road conditions in Texas, and one woman died in Tuscaloosa, Ala. when she was hit by debris from a shattered billboard.

At the storm's peak, some 30,000 people were without power in Alabama but by Saturday about two-thirds of them had power.

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