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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Eight months since Katrina, driest in more than a century

By Michelle Hunter East Jefferson bureau

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew through the greater New Orleans area, dumping nearly 1 feet of rainwater, many prayed for drier days to make work easier for rescuers and allow their submerged city a chance to dry out.

“Be careful what you wish for,” said State Climatologist Barry Keim.

In a ironic twist after most of New Orleans sat submerged in water for weeks, the eight months since Oct. 1 have been the driest south Louisiana has seen in the 111 years that the state has kept rainfall records, he said. Since October, most locales in the southern half of the state have averaged just 21 inches of rain, down from the usual 40-inch average, Keim said.

What’s worse, other than a minor spike in rain chances beginning Friday and continuing into early next week, the rest of the month looks like more of the same, a National Weather Service forecaster said.

If that sounds bad, Keim said that’s because it is.

“We’re in what’s called extreme drought,” Keim said of the state’s record-breaking dry spell. “We’ve really been suffering here, especially since Katrina.”

That has meant plenty of business for stores that sell sprinklers and hoses.

Charlotte Tatum and her mother, Evelyn Tatum, browsed the shelves of Lowes Home Improvement Store in Harvey Wednesday afternoon, looking for a new lawn sprinkler.

“We have a vegetable garden,” said Tatum, who paused, closed her eyes and shook her head as if to mourn her withering veggies and reconsider using the word “have.”

Tatum, 56, of Algiers, said she’s taken to extra waterings to save the okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, eggplants, onions and peppers growing in her small backyard garden. But she’s already seen the water bill almost double.

“Watering helps, but we can’t afford to keep doing it,” she said.

Without New Orleans’ once dependable daily showers, lawns have browned, rice and sugar cane crops are suffering and residents like Tatum have emptied store shelves of hoses and other irrigation devices.

The increase in watering could stress city and parish pumping systems, and officials fear they could break due to ground subsidence caused by the lack of rain.

While nobody wants to see another strong hurricane target the city, there are probably more than a few who wouldn’t mind a little fast-moving squall that’s drops a few inches rain and then heads on its way.

“A tropical storm would do wonders for us right now,” Keim said. “A weak one, of course.”

The forecast for rest of the month calls for is more days of little or no rain, said Mike Shields, senior forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Slidell.

Shields said there is a 30 percent chance of rain for the weekend and into next week — spotty showers at best. “And then until the end of the month it looks like the same patter of high pressure still over us and keeping us dry,” he said.

At the Lowes in Slidell, the metal shelves of sprinklers and attachments had been picked clean, while one cardboard bin of all-weather garden hoses sat empty.

“Seems like everybody’s watering as much as they can,” store manager Mark Tortomasi said. “They’re seasonal items, so we sell more in the summer. But they’re probably selling more than average this year.”

Things were getting “drought-y” before Katrina arrived, Keim said. Southern Louisiana had been abnormally dry for about five months before the storm made landfall Aug. 29.

“The drought was interrupted, if you will, by Katrina and we went back into the drought pattern. Then we got that deluge from Rita. And as soon as that storm left, we went right back into the drought pattern,” he said.

To simplify the problem, Keim refreshed the old grade-school explanation of the precipitation cycle: humidity rises from the earth to the sky, the moisture forms a cloud and then raindrops fall back down to the ground.

In Louisiana’s case, a stable structure of atmosphere is hanging over the region, preventing the moisture from rising, he said. It’s similar to the atmospheric conditions in arid western states like Texas.

“For whatever reason, this dome of upper pressure in the atmosphere seems displaced east by a few hundred miles,” Keim said.

The effects of the drought are being felt nearly everywhere.

At New Orleans’ City Park, the lack of rain has affected everything from fish to flowers. After being flooded by Lake Pontchartrain’s brackish water, the waterways that meander through the 1,300-acre park are still filled with uncommonly salty water nine months after the storm.

“We’re not going to be able to begin restocking fish until the salinity level drops,” said John Hopper, the park’s development director.

Dry conditions also have stressed tender vegetation that park employees and legions of volunteers have planted to replace foliage killed by the flood, he said. To keep the maturing flowers alive, park officials have resorted to watering almost constantly around the park’s few revenue-generating attractions.

“In the botannical garden, amusement park and in Storyland, the sprinklers are running 24 hours a day,” Hopper said. “A lot of (sprinklers) they just leave on all night.”

The drought also has hampered plans to reopen the North Course to golfers.

“Normally this time of year, we are bemoaning the fact that it is raining too much,” Hopper said.

Across town at the golf course at Audubon Park, groundskeepers have tripled their frequency of watering — from twice weekly to every night, said Larry Rivarde, managing director for the Uptown park and Audubon Zoo. Also “kicked up a notch” is the watering schedule for flower beds in the park and at the zoo, though Rivarde said his operating budget always includes a cushion to absorb extra water costs in the summer.

But drought brings problems bigger than St. Augustine grass that crunches underfoot. The state’s agricultural industries are suffering, Keim said, particularly rice and sugar cane crops.

Residents grieving the so-so crawfish season have only the lack of rain to blame. Katrina’s salty storm surge affected them as well. And because the grass isn’t growing, farmers are using hay normally saved for the winter months to feed their skinny cattle, Keim said.

Officials with the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board have blamed the dry conditions for soil subsidence that have led to recent water pipe fissures. Those breaks have compounded the number of leaks caused by Katrina, leading to a system that pours 85 million gallons of drinking water per day into the city’s subsurface or onto streets and lawns.

Similar breaks have not been an issue for the water department in neighboring Jefferson Parish. But they’re producing 71 million gallons of water a day, 17 million more than usual, Director Randy Shuler said. Officials in Jefferson also are concerned about subsidence. A dry spell three years ago cost $7 million in pipe repairs compared to the annually budgeted $2.5 million, he said.

And then there’s the fire hazards. St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis imposed his fourth burn ban since Katrina at the behest of local fire chiefs because of the dry conditions. Crews there have been battling a rash of brush and wood fires. Fire departments in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish haven’t seen similar blazes. But officials for both said they’re concerned about dry grass along roadways versus ignition sources like lit cigarettes tossed out of windows.

There is no clear picture for long-term forecasts that attempt to predict the chance of above- or below-average range for the entire summer.

The national weather service’s climate prediction center forecasts that precipitation in the area will return to normal levels in the next three months. But Keim said such predictions are often way off.

“We’re crossing our fingers,” forecaster Tim Destri said. “We can’t say for sure, but we see some hope of getting back to the typical summer patter.”

Reporters Michelle Krupa and Jenny Hurwitz contributed to this story. (Michelle Hunter can be reached at or (504) 883-7054.)