Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, adding his voice to urgent calls for assistance from throughout the drought-stricken Southeast, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture yesterday to declare 17 counties in the state disaster areas.
Temperatures that soared toward the 100-degree mark through much of the parched region yesterday underscored efforts by several states to win disaster designation for dozens of counties where crops have withered and cattle and poultry have suffered severely.
"Our farmers need all available help from state and federal agencies," Baliles said in a letter to Washington. With more than two-thirds of the state suffering from an extreme drought, he said, Virginia farmers face their most serious hardship since the Great Depression.
In Maryland, where losses to farmers have been termed "catastrophic," an aide to Gov. Harry Hughes said yesterday that the governor would seek federal disaster relief for 17 counties.
"It's really rough," echoed James A. Graham, agriculture commissioner in North Carolina, where 49 of the state's 100 counties are requesting disaster designation. In the hard-hit Piedmont, he said, the corn crop "is a 50 percent loss."
Considered by some indexes as the worst drought in the Southeast in the century, the heat and lack of rain have plagued farmers from Alabama north and east to Delaware and Pennsylvania. In Georgia, temperatures have soared into the upper 90s every day for more than a week.
Across the Southeast yesterday, weather forecasters predicted little relief, estimates of expected crop losses mounted and levels of lakes, streams and reservoirs continued to decline, forcing water restrictions in some areas.
A South Carolina official said the state had notified the Agriculture Department that it will seek disaster designation for about two-thirds of its 46 counties.
"There's no question about it," Assistant Agriculture Secretary George Dunlop said last night about the likelihood of many counties across the Southeast qualifying for the disaster designations.
Designation of a county by the Agriculture Department as a disaster area makes farmers there eligible for low-cost loans. In addition, they become eligible for an emergency feed program that Dunlop said permits farmers to obtain government owned or stored commodities at substantial discounts.
In addition to the 17 central Virginia counties identified yesterday as in need of disaster aid, Baliles said an additional dozen or more would be added to the list after damage assessment reports are completed. Loudoun County is one of those.
The hardest hit part of the state is a corridor east of the Blue Ridge and west of Fredericksburg running through Charlottesville and on to the south of Lynchburg.
Crop losses in the 17 counties are estimated at $61.5 million, although Baliles said actual dollar losses to farmers could be less because of some of the farmers' participation in federal programs.
The Virginia counties named yesterday are Albemarle, Appomatox, Augusta, Buckingham, Campbell, Caroline, Carroll, Clarke, Fluvanna, Greene, Hanover, Lancaster, Louisa, Madison, Nelson, Orange and Prince Edward.
In Maryland, where total losses to 17 counties are expected to approach $100 million if the dry spell continues, corn losses have been placed as high as 75 percent in Calvert, Frederick and St. Mary's counties.
Losses of more than $8 million have been cited in Queen Anne's, Caroline and Carroll counties in Maryland.
As another consequence of the drought, flow in the Potomac River, from which the Washington area draws much of its water is "going to be very low this summer," despite a scattering of recent thunderstorms, said Daniel P. Sheer, director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac Basin.
He said, however, that enough water was stored in upstream reservoirs to keep flow up to required levels even if the drought persists through the summer.
In Georgia, officials said they had not sought disaster designation, noting that farmers in 133 of the state's 159 counties are still covered by a previous designation that offered relief from last year's drought and some freezes.
High temperatures across the Southeast have been blamed for at least 14 deaths, a number from heat prostration. The temperature yesterday reached 99 in Atlanta and 100 in Columbia, S.C.
"Some days," said Patricia Jerman, director of the South Carolina governor's Division of Energy and Environment, "the grass is too hot to stand on barefoot."
The "saddest part" of the current drought, she said, is that the next two months are typically the driest. Severe as conditions have been, she said, one water expert has warned her state that "you ain't seen nothing yet."
Chances of conditions returning to normal within as little as six months are "probably less than 10 percent," said Frank T. Quinlan, chief of the climatological analysis division of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
He attributed the abnormal conditions in part to a northward shift of the high altitude air current known as the jet stream, and to a westward migration of a major weather system known as the Bermuda High.
The Army Corps of Engineers said the dry spell had forced the closing, as of Sunday, of the Dismal Swamp Canal, a popular waterway for recreational boaters in the Norfolk area. A corps spokesman said the canal would remain closed until sufficient rainfall recharged the swamp, on the North Carolina-Virginia border.
Starting Monday, Atlanta residents will not be permitted to water yards on weekdays between 7 and 11 a.m., when commercial and industrial use is at a peak.
Charlotte and Durham, N.C., have clamped restrictions on water use; an official in Greensboro, N.C., said he would soon have to do the same, and the mayor of Bunn, N.C., said only a five-day supply of water remained in his town's wells.
In Virginia, the Department of Agriculture has set up two toll-free telephone numbers to help farmers. By calling 1-800-552-1833, farmers can get help in finding hay to buy or sell. The second number, 1-800-552-5521, gives livestock price information.
Virginia officials are predicting extremely low yields in major summer crops such as hay, corn, soybeans and tobacco.
In Maryland, only two counties, Talbot and Kent, have not filed an assessment of crop losses. Garrett, Washington, Allegany and Montgomery have reported their situation as not critical. They said they would reassess losses in two weeks. Staff writer Victoria Churchville contributed to this report.