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Weather extremes may be the new norm

A record-setting winter in much of the country has been followed by more records: tornadoes, flooding, drought and heat. Climate change is largely to blame, scientists say.

August 24, 2011|Julie Cart and Hailey Branson-Potts

Drought-caused agricultural losses in Texas have been tallied at $5.2 billion so far. Some of the state's water-starved cities are beginning programs to recycle treated sewage for household use, a practice known as "toilet to tap."

The Lone Star State has been so beset by weather emergencies that Gov. Rick Perry has made a state disaster declaration every month since December.

In many states, late summer has been awful by any measure. Back-to-school excitement turned deadly this month when three high school football players and a coach died during practices in a 10-day period in Texas, Georgia and South Carolina. A police dog in St. Martinville, La., died of heat stroke while chasing two suspects this month. Some states are reporting a rash of thefts of air-conditioning units.

"This summer is a good wake-up call not to take nature lightly," said Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University. "No matter people's perspectives about climate change, this year has helped highlight our vulnerability. Climate change increases the risk of what happens naturally."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 25, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Weather extremes: An article about extreme weather in the Aug. 24 Section A said the 50 tornadoes that struck Oklahoma in April set a record for the most tornadoes to hit the state in one month. That was the most tornadoes Oklahoma has experienced in the month of April. The record number of tornadoes to hit Oklahoma in any month was 90, in both May 1999 and May 2010.

Marshall's woes are especially troubling, as the town in north-central Oklahoma is populated with the poor or elderly who can scarcely afford to prepare against the elements.

The Gillards -- 48-year-old Tim, 34-year-old Maygin and their four children -- moved to Marshall right before the big snowstorm in February. Maygin Gillard's grandfather built the house more than 40 years ago, and it has no central heating or air conditioning. The walls have some insulation, but not much. During the winter, the family uses a wood-burning stove and electric heaters.

During one cold spell the family could not travel for two days because the town's gas pumps froze.

"It's been absolutely nuts," Maygin Gillard said. "Somebody made Mother Nature mad this year."

The summer's heat wave has been tough on all of the Gillard children, but especially their youngest son, 11-year-old Masion, who has asthma and diabetes. The boy is forced to stay inside because the heat is so hard on him.

The blocked-off half of the house, Gillard said, feels like a sauna. If she has to get something from it, she peeks around the door to locate the item, runs to it, then races back to the cool area. The other day the heat caused a bottle of glue to explode.

Shirley Harrington, 52, lives in a double-wide trailer next to the Marshall post office. When the power went off this month, she dropped off her paralyzed husband, Mike, 56, and their dog at her mother-in-law's house 39 miles away in Enid. He requires oxygen at night and has to use a nebulizer three times a day. Both require electricity.

Mike Harrington worked on oil rigs until he suffered a spinal cord injury after being hit in the head with a metal block.

Most of his body is numb, and, though he can walk unsteadily, he is largely confined to a wheelchair and can't feel hot or cold, so Shirley has to watch him closely when severe weather hits.

With her husband safely in Enid, she slept one night on her outdoor swing, listening to the hum of her neighbors' generators.

When power was restored two days later, she brought Mike home -- and bought a generator.

Last week she cut down a 20-year-old mimosa tree in her yard. She had planted it after her father died. The heat finally killed it.

"I called it Daddy's Tree. It broke my heart having to take it down, but I said, 'Daddy, I'll get you a new tree, somehow, some way,' " she said.


Branson-Potts is a special correspondent.

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