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Drought Worsens and Death Toll Rises to 10 : Use of Water Severely Restricted in Sizzling Southeast

July 16, 1986|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Temperatures hovered near triple digits again Tuesday in the sizzling Southeast, worsening a drought that has already scorched crops and forced a mounting number of communities to severely restrict water use.

The relentless heat wave, which has cut a blistering arc from Louisiana to Virginia and has sent temperatures above the 100-degree mark daily for more than a week in some localities, has been blamed for at least 10 deaths.

Weather forecasters held out little prospect for any immediate relief from the crop-killing drought, despite clouds Tuesday that brought slightly cooler weather to some areas, and said the outlook through the middle of next month calls for only normal rainfall.

Weekly Rain Needed

But, David Ihle of the Southeast Agricultural Weather Service Center in Auburn, Ala., said: "Even if you get normal rainfall, you're going to have trouble making up the deficit because there's a lot of evaporation. What you need is a good rain every week."

Ihle said a massive high-pressure area has stationed itself over the Southeast, muscling out fronts that could set off rain clouds and release much-needed precipitation.

In Georgia, one of the hardest-hit states, rainfall since the first of the year is 14 to 24 inches below normal, depending on the area. The latest Georgia crop summary showed only 2% of the counties with "adequate" soil moisture, 24% "short" of moisture and 74% "very short."

"It's scary now," said Jim Henderson, a farmer and cattleman in Hall County, northwest of Atlanta. "What we're seeing now we've never seen before."

Driest Since 1878

Gary Beeley, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said the Atlanta area is the driest it has been since 1878, when record-keeping began. The city's rainfall so far this year totals 13.36 inches. In an average year, rainfall by this date would be just under 30 inches.

"We've had scattered thunderstorms every day but they're not widespread enough to help out," Beeley said. "And it looks like the same pattern will continue this week. We don't see any rainy spell coming."

Clayton County, in the rolling red-clay-and-pine country just south of Atlanta, has ordered a ban on all outdoor watering and asked restaurants not to serve customers water unless they order it. "We're basically at the point that people can either have green yards or water in their house," said Melvin Newman, the county's water supply manager.

Leonard Ledbetter, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the state may be forced to declare an emergency in Clayton County and several small northern Georgia communities if the drought continues. Under an emergency declaration, residents would be allowed to use water only for "essential purposes," such as bathing or drinking.

Voluntary Restrictions

The state has already asked 73 communities, most of them in northern Georgia, to implement voluntary restrictions on water use.

In North Carolina, Chapel Hill residents were being warned that they are subject to a 30-day jail sentence if they violate an emergency water-conservation law by taking showers more than four minutes long.

In South Carolina, another hard-hit state, farmers are facing economic disaster as an eight-day string of 100-degree temperatures and the prolonged dry spell wither crops, kill poultry and cut short the harvesting season.

"This is about the worst drought we've had in the state of South Carolina in 100 years," said Henry W. (Sonny) Smith, a spokesman for the state agricultural department.

Wheat Crop Off 50%

He said the state's wheat crop is off by 50% or more in some areas and the $400-million-a-year soybean and tobacco crop has been "cut considerably."

"It's playing havoc with your other vegetables like sweet corn, tomatoes and cucumbers," Smith said. "And somewhere down the line it may show up in Christmas trees, because growers aren't getting the growth they need on the trees this year."

The state's Water Resources Commission has declared 13 counties in northwest and north-central South Carolina to be in a severe drought emergency.

Dry weather in Tennessee has prompted water shortage alerts in at least three utility districts in the Chattanooga area, with well supplies alarmingly below usual levels. "We do not have people going without water, but the situation . . . is already causing concern right now and contingency measures are being taken," said Elmo Lunn, the state water management director.

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