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Last Years Floods Give Way To Drought*

Last year's floods give way to drought

Posted 6/13/2006 11:06 PM ET

By Catherine Rampell, USA TODAY

Less than a year after suffering one of the most disastrous floods in U.S. history, the Gulf Coast is in the midst of a drought.

For a region defined by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the floodwaters that came with them, this summer has become about jagged cracks in the soil and the constant threat of fire.

The dry conditions in Louisiana, Mississippi and southeast Texas have hit rice, crawfish, sugar cane and soybean farmers the hardest.

Ricky Gonsoulin, a sugar cane farmer in New Iberia, La., says he lost about 50% of his crops to the hurricanes last year. He's worried the drought will claim 25%-30% of this year's yield.

"Before the last four years, we always seemed to have typical summer, typical winter, with typical rains," Gonsoulin says. "But now it's either too much or not enough."

Although Rita and Katrina deluged coastal areas last summer, not as much rain fell inland. And the rain "came down so quickly that it ran off and didn't get into the soil," says Donald Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center. That's led to drought conditions severe enough to kill crops and pastures and leave areas that are rife with debris susceptible to fire.

One upside: The rainless days help builders repair hurricane damage more quickly. "There are no rain delays," says Scott Wolfe, CEO of Wolfman Construction in New Orleans. The drought "keeps the water table dry," he says, "which means we don't have to spend time draining it before building."

The typically wet region tends to experience a serious drought about once every five or six years, says Nathan Crisp, director of the Louisiana Agricultural Statistics Service.

The dry conditions date back to August 2005, before hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit. To recover, the area needs about an inch of rain a day for the next four weeks. That's unlikely, says Barry Keim, a climatologist for the state of Louisiana.

Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the drought center, says communities have not begun to ration water.

Some of the ways drought has affected the region:

•Rice farmers have had to pump groundwater into fields, resulting in higher labor costs and increasing the salt levels in the soil, Crisp says. Salt levels already are high because of the storm surges that drenched the area last year.

•Some cotton and corn farmers delayed planting because of the dry weather, Crisp says.

•Citrus growers are concerned because fruit is dropping from trees, Fuchs says.

The cattle industry also is suffering. Some ranchers in South Texas, which is experiencing the worst of the drought, are selling their herds. In Louisiana, cattlemen feed their herds hay because pastures are so dry, Crisp says.

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