The Rev. Wilton Alexander Harrison, a Baptist pastor, has been praying for the last month for rain to alleviate a drought that has devastated farms in the Southeast.
Other ministers in the region also have been praying for help but, unlike his brethren, Harrison has a vested interest in a heavy downpour: he has 146 acres and 60 cattle near his church in Piedmont, S.C.
Harrison said the creek on his place was running at about a quarter of its normal level. It looked more like a puddle than a stream. A bullfrog croaked as he complained: "I've never seen it as bad as this." South Carolina is one of the worst-hit states.
"The place up the road got some rain and the place down the road got some, but we haven't had any. I should be crying but I've got to laugh," he said.
Harrison has pumped his creek nearly dry to irrigate small patches of his land. The bright green of the irrigated areas contrasted with the dark, burnt soil nearby. "That hay should be higher than your head, but it is only knee-high," he said.
Harrison, who is 70 and has 14 children, pointed with his walking stick to where there should be pastureland or crops but where there was only stubble. Some farmers have been saying the drought is the worst since 1925, but Harrison, who was 9 at the time, said he remembers that one and insisted, "This one is much worse."
The earth is scorched in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama. Parts of northern Florida, Delaware and Maryland have also been affected. Thirty-four deaths have been blamed on the heat wave. Crops and pastureland have been ruined, and many small farmers, already struggling with high interest rates and lower prices, have either gone bankrupt or are facing the prospect.
Driving through Spartanburg County, S.C., a major peach-growing area, a traveler this weekend would have seen rows of trees that in normal summers would be weighed down with plump fruit; this year's crop is the size of golf balls. Water being pumped for irrigation is evaporating soon after it reaches the fields. Corn is being cut for animal feed. Pastureland is brown and stunted. The constant topic of conversation -- from the Blue Hills of the Appalachians in Tennessee through the Carolinas -- is the weather forecast, but the sky remains a stubborn, hazy gray.
Some rivers in Georgia are flowing at less than 40 percent of normal, and towns in the region have imposed water restrictions. In Atlanta it is now illegal to water a lawn or wash a car.
Ralph Franklin, a professor in the soils and agronomy department of Clemson University in South Carolina, said: "The state is impoverished. There has been no good rain since last fall. It's a pretty desperate situation. The rain is 15 inches below what we'd normally get. Lakes are down, crops like soybeans and tobacco are suffering, pastures are drying up, beef farmers have been selling their stock for a number of weeks.
"Even if it rains now, the farmers will still be in a desperate situation. Dairy producers in the state will have to import about two or three hundred tons of feed a day until next spring."
He added: "Although this is only a small percentage of the agricultural land in the United States, it is a catastrophe for the people here. It's the worst drought they've had since they began keeping records."
Temperatures stayed in the 90s and 100s yesterday. Scott Tansey, a meteorologist with the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, predicted scattered showers and thunderstorms over the next few days but said "there is not much sign of relief in terms of rainstorms. Some areas might get an inch or two but it will be localized."
On Sunday record temperatures were set in Macon, Ga. (106) and Savannah (105). It was 106 in Macon again yesterday. Columbia, S.C., Atlanta and Columbus, Ga., set records at 105, and Charlotte, N.C., did the same at 103.
Yesterday an Air Force plane brought 600 bales of hay into Greenville, S.C., from farmers in Illinois who had donated it. A truck carrying about 15 tons of hay from Indiana arrived in South Carolina. A second truck was being loaded, Indiana Lt. Gov. John M. Mutz said, adding that a 100-car train carrying more hay will leave later this week.
Indiana farmers had pledged as of yesterday to donate 1,500 tons of hay worth $120,000, officials said. Farmers in other midwestern states have made similar pledges.
Farmers and agricultural officials in South Carolina said the donations are welcome but, as Emory Jones, Greenville's agricultural extension chairman, said: "Most everyone is looking for hay to buy from the Midwest. They realize they are eventually going to have to buy."
Jerry Park, 45, who has 165 acres at Parrotsville, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, said: "I heard that a farmer up the road has gone bankrupt. If the drought continues, then it will be more than likely that for me. But I don't really want to think too much about that just now."
He has 150 dairy cattle, an acre of tobacco, a $66,000 mortgage from the bank at 10 percent interest and a $24,000 loan from a government agency at 12 percent.
"I've sold 10 milk cows in the last two months," Park, a father of three, said. "I'll have to sell more because I won't have the feed for them. Prices are dropping. They're taking advantage of us because they know we have to sell."
Douglas Schotte, assistant manager of Iredell Livestock Market, one of the biggest in North Carolina, said sales of cattle at the weekly sale have nearly tripled in the last month, from 1,200 to 3,000. "We're truly in a disaster area," he said. "There is no grass and no feed. A very large proportion of cattle farmers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia will be out of business before the summer is over. We're seeing the liquidation of entire herds. It is not very pleasant to watch."
A task force from the Department of Agriculture headed by assistant secretary George S. Dunlop has met with Georgia officials and toured a farm in Alabama.
Rep. Lindsay Thomas (D), who represents southeast Georgia, told the task force: "We're heading for one of the worst disasters southeastern agriculture has ever experienced. I don't know of anyone with a crop in the ground and a considerable investment in it who can survive this without outside help."
Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) said: "We don't need any low-interest loans. What we are looking for is . . . surplus commodities."
Amid all the grim news, Lt. Ralph Johnson of the Burke County, N.C., sheriff's department found one modest benefit from the drought. It has hit not only ordinary farmers, but also those growing illegal drugs.
"This year we have seized 13,000 marijuana plants . On July 5 last year we had 39,000," he said. "What we've seen in a lot of fields is that many plants do not germinate. Those that have come up are stunted."