Scorched Earth

This summer’s hot topic? Weather.

FROM MY OFFICE WINDOW I can see in the distance a few low, white clouds. Thin and flat, they hang in the sky as if they were ghosts of UFOs. I can’t help staring at them. They are an interruption to what I have been seeing for weeks and weeks—a clear blue sky, as blue as a postcard, empty and blue. In five minutes, without ever seeming to move, the clouds are gone, and once again there is nothing but the solid, irritating blue.

Perhaps you have noticed how hot it’s been this summer. One statistic can tell the whole story, since the statistics are similar throughout the state: Temperatures in Dallas went over 100 degrees for 29 days in a row. That’s well short of the record of 42 days in 1980, but still, that’s a lot of hot days. And there is the drought. San Antonio and Houston have had the driest April-to-July growing season on record. Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth have had the second driest. When normal rainfall and livable temperatures will return is anybody’s guess—assuming they do return. Right now, I find the weather depressing in a way I had never imagined. The song says, “Blue skies smilin’ at me …” Blue skies are usually associated with fine days, with a humming, pleasant, well-ordered world. But now they are oppressive, the sign of unrelenting heat, of foliage turning brown, of dust and dry cracks in the ground. Where are those halcyon days when the sky is nothing but low, black clouds and the wind blows cold rain right into your face?

Each day the news is filled with the consequences of the weather, some of it tragic, some of it amusing in a heat-addled way, but none of it good.

There have been more than one hundred deaths in Texas caused by this summer’s heat. The East Texas forests are already in their fall colors. The heat and the drought have baked the green away. And we’ll be feeling the effects at least until Christmas, since the seedlings on Christmas-tree farms are especially vulnerable to heat.

The Kansas National Guard agreed to deliver nine truckloads of free hay to Texas. Two Kansas ranchers, sympathetic with Texas’ woes, collected the hay. But even well-meaning charity can become a political dispute. Comptroller John Sharp, who is the Democratic party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, said he thought the Texas National Guard should deliver the free hay. But Governor George W. Bush and agriculture commissioner Rick Perry, who is Sharp’s opponent, agreed that the guard could deliver the hay but said they expected private companies to step forward to do the job.

The City of Irving employed a professional wrestler named Reid Downs, who puts a ring in his nose and uses the name Bullman, to patrol the streets at night to catch any home owners or businesses that violate watering restrictions.

On July 5 the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, a national park near Amarillo, burned up in a wildfire. Grass, mesquite, cacti, and a building on park grounds were all destroyed.

On August 4 the temperature reached 101 degrees in Houston, breaking the existing record for that day. Even in the heat, more than a thousand people stood in line for hours to get federal heat-relief aid. Some collapsed and had to be treated. Houston Metro sent seven air-conditioned buses as temporary relief stations. A few intersections nearby were blocked off, and fire hoses sprayed wa ter into the air. About four thousand people got an average of $500 for utility bills or repairs to air conditioners.

United States border officials estimated that at least fifty illegal immigrants had died from the heat on their way to or from crossing the Rio Grande. One man sought refuge in a Border Patrol checkpoint north of Laredo. He was dazed and stumbling and begging for water. The Border Patrol gave him Gatorade and a sandwich.

There were so many grass fires around Dallas in early August that with the temperature at 106 degrees, the sky over downtown turned black.

The Austin American-Statesman reported the plight of Larry Gilbert, a zoologist with the University of Texas who runs an experimental program to import phorids, tiny flies that prey on fire ants. The phorids inject their eggs into a fire ant’s thorax. Then the eggs hatch, and larvae eat their way to freedom, killing the ant. But this year the fire ants stayed deep underground to avoid the heat, and the imported phorids died. “I don’t want to whine,” Gilbert told the paper, “but I haven’t had the best of luck with the weather.”

The heat has dried the ground in Fort Worth, causing it to shift. The shifting broke a ninety-inch water main that carried almost half of Tarrant County’s water supply.

The prolonged high temperatures have caused sun kinks in railroad tracks. The heated tracks expand, shift, and even come loose. In early August sun kinks caused the derailment of 13 cars on a 112-car train near Fort Worth. Twelve cars on a 126-car train carrying coal derailed near Hillsboro. Union Pacific reduced train speeds by 10 miles per hour and patrolled tracks daily, but company officials acknowledged that it was impossible to find every kink in time to prevent accidents.

The Dallas Academy, a private school, moved its summer football practices to 6:45 in the morning.

Bernard Weinstein, the director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of North Texas in Denton, said that the drought will not have a significant effect on the Texas economy unless it lasts several years. The reason is that agriculture is only one percent of the Texas economy. Other economists, including Jared Hazelton, the director of the Center for Business and Economic Analysis at Texas A&M, and Thomas Saving, the director of the Private Enterprise Research Center at Texas A&M, agreed. Speaker of the House Pete Laney and Senate Finance Committee chairman Bill Ratliff, both of whom represent rural districts, said the economists were simply wrong. And election opponents John Sharp

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