At first glance, it looks like a typical fall across the Midwest.
green pastures and lawns brought to life by August rains, the earth is
still desiccated. On closer inspection, the brown corn stalks are half
as tall as they should be and the husks contain stunted ears - or
nothing at all.
The drought of 2012 isn't just a rural tragedy.
Barges plying the Ohio and Mississippi rivers carry less cargo to avoid
running aground in low water.
Homeowners far from farmland are
paying for expensive repairs to basements and foundations separated from
the shrinking soil around them. Businesses that depend on water - a
canoe rental company, a campground that counts on its well-stocked
fishing pond to attract visitors - feel the economic pain, too.
drought is not over by any means," says Josh Sittler, battalion chief
for the Honey Creek Township Fire Department in western Indiana. Fall
brings new worries: brush fires and fires caused by dry plant dust
jamming the engines of farmers' combines.
The northern Great
Plains and Upper Midwest remain "drought- stricken," meteorologist David
Simeral of the Western Regional Climate Center notes. All of nine
states - Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas,
Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri - can't shake the drought.
The scorching of the central USA is one of the nation's worst in
decades: Almost 65% of the nation is enduring drought conditions,
Thursday's Drought Monitor reported. That's the highest percentage since
the government website began recording conditions in 2000. Purdue
economist Chris Hurt pegged the cost at $77 billion, which would make it
the third-costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, after Hurricane
Katrina in 2005 and another devastating drought in 1988.
in the stricken states and well beyond them are feeling the pain, as
the prices of food, gas, retail goods and utilities have all ticked up.
extreme drought has been exacerbated by near-record heat: The summer of
2012 was the third-hottest in U.S. weather history, and July was the
hottest month the nation has ever recorded.
The dominant mood in
four drought belt states visited this week by USA TODAY was resignation
tempered by hope that next year will be better. And the deadpan humor
that's part of the Midwestern ethos is intact: Paul Staley, a farmer in
Paris, Ill., jokes that at least "the well didn't go dry until the
hurricane hit" - a reference to the remnants of Tropical Storm Isaac
that brought some rain earlier this month.
Snapshots from the road:
Day 1: Even the fish suffer
The drought was a double whammy for the Virostko family.
farmer Jim Virostko, 58, is selling one of his tractors. His corn crop
was lousy, and he had no crop insurance. He had to haul in water for his
His wife, Pam Blake-Virostko, 60, hasn't had a great
year either. The main attraction at Peaceful Waters, the campground she
opened last year with her brother, David Blake, is a well-stocked pond.
"Free fishing for campers!" their brochure says.
dropped 17 inches in a couple months, and the fish took refuge in the
deepest part of the pond. "It was hard to catch fish," Blake-Virostko
says, and it was too hot for camping anyway. "We're still not breaking
even," she says.
Doug and Lori Miller's passion for growing
Christmas trees hasn't been dented by the drought, but they took a hit
this year: 384 of the 750 seedlings they planted at Holiday Hill
Christmas Tree Farm died.
Fortunately, most of their mature trees
are fine and they'll have plenty to sell come Christmas. "We' re doing
cartwheels," says Doug Miller, who like his wife is 45.
At this time of year, Paul and Sherry Staley deck themselves out in
orange garb and turn their farm into Pumpkin Works. They sell pumpkins
and set up a dozen intricate mazes. Last year, more than 35,000 people
came between Sept. 15 and Halloween.
This year things are a little
different. The cornfield where some of the mazes are cut is dead and
the stalks are too short to create blind paths and dead ends, so they
put up a sign dubbing it the "drought maze."
"We find the public very understanding if you're right up front with them," says Paul Staley, 66.
the drought damaged apple crops, the price the Staleys paid a
wholesaler for cider doubled this year. That forced them to add 50 cents
to the cost of the cider sippers they sell. Last year's price was
The 33-acre pumpkin crop is fine, thanks to rain at a key
moment in their growing cycle, but the drought "slowed them up a
little," he says.
"If we had no pumpkins, we'd be in big trouble," says Sherry Staley, 65.
Day 2: When the well runs dry
Green knew in June that this was going to be a difficult year on his
800-acre corn and soybean farm. It had rained in early May, says Green,
59, but he didn't know then that "was going to be the last rain we
By the time 1.7 inches of rain fell in July, it was too late for most
of his corn crop. "Farming," he says, "is quite a gamble most of the
Lisa Barnett, 51, thought the 23-foot well that serves her home would last a lifetime.
Then the drought hit. One day in July, with a house full of family, she turned on a faucet and "it was just barely a trickle."
It cost $5,000 to dig 8 feet deeper. It was worth it, Barnett says. She doesn't have to haul clothes to the laundromat anymore.
is the worst I've ever seen," says Tim Riley, 53, who with his
brother-in-law farms 5,000 acres and runs a trucking company and other
Riley, who grew up here, should be harvesting 170-175
bushels from each acre of corn. He's getting as little as 16 bushels an
acre. That means he won't buy new tractors or the semi-truck he's been
"It's been trying," he says of this miserable year, and his wife, Renae, "says it's put me in a bad mood."
the worst days, when temperatures soared past 100, Donna Whitley, owner
of The Garden Shed, had to water her flowers, plants and trees three
times a day. "I can't stand to see them die," she says.
Some of them did anyway - even trees that were 6 or 7 feet tall. Dogwoods, pears and plums were among the drought's victims.
Asked if she's tallied her losses, Whitley, 61, says, "Not yet."
Day 3: Garden never had a chance
enemies of the commercial river shipping business don't lurk beneath
the water. Long, skinny sandbars are plainly visible in the middle of
the river between Paducah, Ky., and Metropolis, Ill. They're plotted on
charts to keep boats away and marked by buoys.
Capt. Mike Hays,
51, who has worked on rivers for 30 years, has never seen anything like
it. "They're right in the middle of the river," he marvels.
water has forced barge companies, including AEP River Operations, which
owns the Buckeye State, to load less cargo in barges, string fewer
barges together and slow down in the narrower, more shallow river
Nobody, Hays says, wants to "bump bottom."
This year, he says, "We've had all sorts of problems with the river."
Arrayed on a table at the Community Farmers Market are plump tomatoes, big onions and hefty sweet potatoes.
Carter wishes they had come from her 1/4-acre garden, but she drove 90
minutes to pick them up at an Amish community that was blessed with more
rain this summer.
Carter, 67, admits she's a little jealous of the bounty. Her green
beans never sprouted. Her cucumbers blossomed, but then the flowers fell
off and the cukes never grew. She won't be canning this fall.
"Too much heat, not enough water," she says.
The drought has everyone around here "feeling kind of down."
Greg Rodgers, a veterinarian at Coffee Memorial Animal Clinic, doesn't worry about the drought's effects on pets.
He brought his two outdoor dogs inside on the hottest days and knows that "most people take good care of their animals."
It's the cattle he worries about, though. A farmer called the other day to ask why some of his cows are aborting their calves.
"Probably heat stress," Rodgers says.
Day 4: Homes are ravaged, too
The first thing people notice is that their doors, windows or deadbolts are hard to open and close.
homeowners spot their foundations pulling away from exterior walls.
Sometimes they hear a noise that sounds like a gunshot.
All are clues to big problems caused by the drought: damage to foundations, basements and walls.
The gunshot sound comes from a cracking foundation. The other
symptoms indicate that shrinking dry soil is making foundations, porches
and concrete slabs settle. Beneath them, big gaps can open up under a
On Thursday, a crew from Helitech, which does structural
repair in five states, was shoring up the foundation and porch of a home
in a subdivision here. It has the telltale gaps and cracks. Without
intervention, much bigger and more expensive problems could visit.
"Little minor problems can all of a sudden become 'holy cow,' " says Burk Watts, a territory manager.
seeing a rash of similar issues in Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana
and especially Missouri, he says. His 16 estimators are so busy that
customers often have to wait two or three weeks to see one, he says.
Foundation repair jobs are "tenfold what we would normally see."
on the damage, repairs can start in the hundreds of dollars and soar
into the tens of thousands. Vern Ganzer, foreman on this job, recently
finished repairs at a Kentucky church that cost $90,000.
It wasn't a great summer for fishing, says Debbie Kaempfer, who works at Foutz Hunting & Fishing Shop.
It was just too hot, she says, and water levels were so low at some
private ponds that fish died. Some pond owners bought aerators to keep
enough oxygen in shallow, hot water.
Kaempfer, 54, noticed a shift
in the mood around town, too. "People were short, grumpy," she says. "I
feel sorry for the farmers."
She's hoping - as so many people are - that next year will be better.
"Everything changes," she says. "Everything goes around."