ALBANY, Ga. -- Thanks to a couple of visitors named Gordon and Helene, Tom Thompson is getting hay from his pastures again.
The back-to-back tropical storms that dumped copious amounts of rain on parts of the Southeast last month loosened the grip of the 3-year-old drought that has withered crops, prompted water restrictions and left streams at record low levels.
The drought is not over by any means, but things are looking better.
Thompson, a dairy farmer near Eatonton, said he missed four hay cuttings this summer and his supplies of hay and silage were critically low because of the lack of rain. But the storms pepped up his pastures.
"The grass turned from brown to green and grew," he said. "The cows ate it and smiled."
Gordon came ashore in Florida on Sept. 17, bringing 2 to 8 inches of rain to Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Helene charged inland along Florida's Gulf Coast five days later, bringing more rain as it passed through Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.
Another tropical system hit South Florida last week, causing widespread flooding and power outages before it sailed into the Atlantic. But that storm didn't travel far enough north to help drought-stricken areas of the South.
And Hurricane Keith, which caused at least a dozen deaths last week in Central America and Mexico, fizzled too soon to offer any relief to parched areas of Texas.
Still, seven Southern states have seen soil moisture levels improve since Tropical Storms Gordon and Helene.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said soil moisture was normal or slightly higher than normal on Sept. 30 in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and the lower half of Alabama.
Only 42 percent of Georgia had adequate or surplus soil moisture on Sept. 1. That had improved to 83 percent by Oct. 2.
Mike Helfert, South Carolina's climatologist, said the eastern portion of his state is doing well, but the western portion remains dry.
"We're seeing a thin veneer of green at the surface," he said.
Water levels in Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, two major South Carolina recreational areas, have climbed about 2 feet, from a low of 5 to 5 1/2 feet, said Al Jones, owner of the Angel's Landing Campground, which has a boat dock on Lake Moultrie.
Jones, who has organized a committee to lobby for drought relief, estimates 41 lakeside businesses lost $40 million in tourist revenue.
With rain from the tropical storms and more frequent thunderstorms in August, boaters now can use the lakes on a limited basis.
"There's as many as 14 businesses that question whether they will be able to open in the spring," Jones said. "This limited use could be a factor in whether they'll be solvent in the spring."
Helene passed over southeastern Alabama on Sept. 22, but left only 1 to 1 1/2 inches of rain.
Christian Carroll, owner of Carroll's Landscaping and Supply in Skipperville, Ala., said even that small amount has helped. "People are starting to buy more," said Carroll, who stopped selling marigolds, petunias and other plants during the drought for lack of business.
In Georgia, the storms helped the state's $80 million to $90 million pecan crop. Pecan trees need rain in September to fill out the nuts growing inside the shells.
The storms were a blessing for Kynard McCray, an Albany landscaper whose income from lawn mowing was cut almost in half during the drought.
"Right now, we've got business on top of business," McCray said. "The grass is growing 1 to 1 1/2 inches a week."
Still, Mike Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., noted that Gordon and Helene did little to help Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. And NOAA reported that the soil is still extremely dry in Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
On the Net:
National Weather Service: http://www.nws.noaa.gov
Drought Mitigation Center: http://enso.unl.edu/ndmc
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