Forty-one parched North Carolina counties are the first to be designated disaster areas from the drought that has devastated crops and livestock in the South.
Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng also said late Monday that farmers in 28 counties adjacent to the 41 could qualify for benefits.
Farmers in all 69 counties will be eligible for emergency disaster loans if substantial parts of their crops are destroyed. Other states have asked for disaster declarations, but Lyng has yet to act on those requests.
Meteorologists predicted yesterday that hot, dry conditions would return to the Southeast this week, ending several days' respite from the heat wave that has compounded the misery of the drought.
This month's death toll from the heat wave in the South and Midwest has reached 59.
On Monday, a Georgia task force reported that if the drought worsens into the fall, state agencies are prepared to suspend school so buses and buildings can be used for shelter operations, to order water rationing, and to make water available from ponds on the campuses of state colleges and universities.
In addition, Tennessee Valley Authority officials said the utility has spent $100 million this year to offset decreased hydroelectric output. Rate increases were being considered for TVA's 2.8 million power customers in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky, said a TVA officer.
The heat has been blamed for 25 deaths this month in Georgia; five in South Carolina; four each in North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois; three each in Alabama and Arkansas; two in Kentucky; and one each in Tennessee, Virginia, Louisiana, Michigan and Texas.