BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A choking drought is worsening quickly across Alabama, killing plants, drying out creeks and rivers and reaching levels not seen in at least 50 years, a climate expert said Thursday.
The latest assessment from the National Drought Mitigation Center showed more than 65 percent of the state is now in an extreme or exceptional drought, up dramatically from a week earlier.
State climatologist John Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, said the current drought isn't too bad when compared to droughts that last six months or more. But compared to short-term droughts of two months or so, "this is a once in a 50- to 100-year event," Christy said.
Alabama's soil only makes conditions worse because the land typically doesn't hold water very well, Christy said in an interview conducted by email.
"So when it stops raining, our soils dry out and vegetation becomes stressed more quickly than in other parts of the country," Christy said. "That's why the saying here is true that we are only seven to 10 days away from a drought."
Conditions are worst in north Alabama, but the lack of rainfall is causing severe drought as far south as the Florida line. Neighboring states also are experiencing a drought, but not as bad as Alabama.
Seven counties in Georgia and five in Alabama have been declared natural disaster areas because of the drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday.
Farmers and ranchers in 18 Alabama counties will qualify for assistance. Seventeen counties qualify in Georgia.
"Our hearts go out to those Alabama farmers and ranchers affected by recent natural disasters," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
He said he and President Barack Obama are committed to helping farmers, ranchers and rural communities amid difficult times. He told Alabama producers that "USDA stands with you and your communities when severe weather and natural disasters threaten to disrupt your livelihood."
While forecasters say cooler weather is on the way, no substantial rain is forecast. Some areas haven't had measurable rainfall since September, according to the National Weather Service.
The biggest impact of the drought so far has been on pastures that no longer are producing hay, forcing livestock farmers to sell cattle at a loss or purchase expensive feed for the winter, Christy said.
State officials have banned outdoor burning but wildfires have still burned more than 12,000 acres statewide in the last month as the drought deepened, and water levels are dropping in streams and lakes.