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Fall storms loosen drought's grip

Back-to-back tropical storms in September dropped generous amounts of rain on parts of the Southeast, helping to loosen the grip of a three-year drought. The prolonged drought has damaged crops, prompted water restrictions and left streams at record low levels in parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

Hurricane Gordon came ashore at Cedar Key, Fla., on Sept. 17, bringing two to eight inches of rain to Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Four days later, Helene charged inland at Pensacola, Fla., bringing more rain as it passed through southeastern Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Another tropical system hit south Florida in early October, causing widespread flooding and power outages before it moved into the Atlantic and became Tropical Storm Leslie.

But the early October storm didn't travel far enough north to help drought-plagued areas of the South, says Russell Pfost, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. And Hurricane Keith, which caused at least a dozen deaths in October in Central America and southeastern Mexico, faded too soon to offer relief to drought-stricken areas of Texas.

Still, seven Southern states have seen improvements in soil moisture levels since Tropical Storms Gordon and Helen.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that soil moisture was normal or slightly higher than normal on Sept. 30 in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and the lower half of Alabama.

Only 42 percent of Georgia had adequate or surplus soil moisture on Sept. 1, but that had improved to 83 percent by Oct. 2.

The eastern portion of South Carolina is doing well in the soil moisture category, although the western portion remains dry, says Mike Helfert, the state's climatologist.

The storms were helpful to Georgia's $80 to $90 million pecan crop. Pecan trees need rain in September to fill out the nuts. Mark Goodyear of Albany, president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association, says stressed trees were losing leaves in some orchards prior to the storms. He estimates the September rains added $2 million to the value of the crop.

The storms reportedly helped some late-planted peanut fields in Georgia, although the moisture reduced the quality of cotton in some areas of the state.

But the drought is far from over, according to experts. Mike Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., notes that Gordon and Helene did little to help Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

And the NOAA report shows that soils still are extremely dry in Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Meteorologists blame the drought on La Nina - the cooling of water in the Pacific Ocean. La Nina ended in September, but forecasters don't expect an immediate change in Southern weather patterns.

What's needed to truly break the drought, says Georgia state climatologist David Stooksbury, is enough soaking rain over a period of months to recharge the ground water and deep soil moisture levels. That kind of rain is typical for Georgia during the winter months and is vital for replenishing soil moisture in time enough for spring planting, says Stooksbury.

However, Georgia's winters for the past two years have been relatively dry, a major reason for the drought. "If we have about an inch above normal rainfall each month during the winter, we'll be going into this spring in much better shape. We need to worry about whether the aquifers are recharged," says Stooksbury.

The forecast calls for normal rainfall to return to Georgia in November.

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