TAMPA, Fla. -- Much of Florida's emerald landscape has turned brown, its wells are being tapped dry and sinkholes have opened up, swallowing parts of houses, streets and back yards.
In the Atlanta metropolitan area, the state has imposed tough water-use restrictions for the first time in 12 years.
Across the Southeast, farmers are watching their crops wither in the fields, and cattle are being sent to the slaughterhouse now because soon there may be nothing for the animals to eat.
The Southeast is in the grip of a drought the likes of which some states have not seen in generations.
Robert and Chris Gonzalez used to treasure their pond stocked with fish and waterfowl at their home near Tampa. All they see these days are buzzards circling overhead.
''They come for the dead fish,'' Robert Gonzalez said. ''There isn't enough water to keep the fish alive.''
The drought extends from South Carolina through Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Gulf Coast Louisiana and parts of West Texas.
Along Florida's Gulf Coast, it has been the driest spring since at least 1915, when records were first kept. The drought index in some counties there rivals that of Arizona's deserts, and tourists are being asked to use their towels twice so hotel laundry rooms can save water.
Georgia has posted the driest May this year since 1895. Some streams have run dry and rivers are at record lows.
In South Carolina, farmers have stopped planting cotton and soybeans.
Roy Speir, a farmer in Georgia's Terrell County, said he has lost 130 acres of corn and may lose 300 acres of peanuts.
''The leaves on the corn are like paper. It'll just crumble in your hand,'' Speir said.
In Alabama, produce farmer Mike Donnell has seen his crops die in the field and had to feed his prize tomatoes, ruined by dry rot, to the hogs.
''Another week and another week would come and the weather people would say it was going to rain on the weekend,'' Donnell said. ''And week after week we would be missed by the rain.''
Scientists would like to promise that relief will come soon, but they can't.
''The problem is we don't really know where we are headed,'' said Granville Kinsman, manager of water data at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which oversees much of the state's Gulf Coast. ''It might be over next year, it might last 10 years. Historical records show there are droughts that last 100 years.''
The drought is believed to be a result of La Nina, the cooling phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean that produces warmer winters and drier-than-normal conditions in the Southeast.
Alabama state officials are preparing to use the National Guard to dispense drinking water in towns where wells are in danger of running dry. Plans are also being made to ask trucking companies to help haul hay from dry, but not critical, northern Alabama into southern Alabama.
Agricultural officials in Florida plan to ask the federal government to declare a disaster, allowing farmers to receive relief money.
Even if the summer rains begin to fall soon, most of the crops are already destroyed, said Whit Chase of the Florida Agriculture Department.
Cattle ranchers are reporting the grass in their pastures is gone. Northern Florida's hay crop is badly damaged, and that will force ranchers to buy hay from other states at much higher prices. Ranchers are culling their herds by selling calves to market early.
Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said some relief will come with the summer tropical storm season. But other experts said it will take more than the normal rainfall to correct the damage that has been done.
On the Net: U.S. Drought Monitor: http://enso.unl.edu/monitor/monitor.html
U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources of the United States: http://water.usgs.gov
U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service: http://www.usda.gov/nass
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