There is, the weather gurus say, zero chance of rain in my town today. And that is pretty much the case for the next 10 days.
It has now been three rainless months at my house, and meteorologists say the drought that starts in Georgia and stretches west has been pretty much centered over our county, that it likely will continue through November, and if the La Nina materializes it could well continue into January.
It would take a jackhammer to make a dent in the concrete that is my yard. There is no little irony that the only natural moisture in all these weeks of sun and day after day of record temperatures has been morning dew. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows our county as one of “Exceptional Drought,” the most severe ranking. A burn ban has been in effect for most of the northern half of the state for weeks. This in a year when other areas of the country have seen record floods.
Mother Nature on a toot, we think. But over the decades her performance has been nothing if not mercurial.
Consider: In 1988 there was drought so severe that, historians say, it almost brought the Mississippi River to a standstill. One of the worst in a century, they label it.
Of that drought, a Chicago Tribune reporter wrote that it “has turned vast stretches of the Mississippi River bottom into sandy beaches … Parts of the channel that were more than half a mile wide are now only a couple of hundred yards across.” The Corps of Engineers cut a channel through sand buildup at Memphis, where more than 1,100 barges had backed up. People in Arkansas joked about “wading across the creek” to Tennessee.
There is a photo of the iconic "M" river bridge at Memphis with nothing but sand in the riverbed on the Tennessee side.
Treasure hunters had a field day discovering shipwrecks and other artifacts that were left exposed in the dry river bed areas, while geologists got access to the history that lay in soil and sedimentation layers not seen before.
Another “worst” drought occurred in 1930-31. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History notes that of eight southern states affected, Arkansas was 16 percent worse than the others. Rainfall in June/July 1930 was the lowest on record, 35 percent below the previous year; August temps at Little Rock peaked at 113 degrees.
In 1928, Arkansas cotton averaged 6 bales per 20 acres. In the 1930 drought year, farmers averaged 2 bales per 20 acres; the price had dropped from 16.79 cents in 1929 to 9.46 cents; by 1931 it was 5.66 cents.
“Of 75 counties, only one — Benton – will have sufficient food for its farm population and livestock,” Extension Chief Roy Reid wrote. In three days in January 1931, the Red Cross signed up 165,518 citizens for food assistance. In that same month, a food riot was reported in Lonoke County.
All this just a few years after the worst Mississippi River flooding in history in 1926-27. The river peaked near Mounds Landing and Arkansas City, Ark., inundating some 173 million acres of land, and leaving more than 700,000 people homeless. Monetary damages due to flooding reached approximately $1 billion, which was one-third of the federal budget in 1927 (about $138 billion in today’s dollars).
More recently, a 2012 drought dropped the Mississippi River to its lowest level since the one in 1988, resulting in the Coast Guard closing an 11 mile stretch of the river. Time magazine noted that the river was 13 feet below normal at Memphis, 20 feet below at Vicksburg, and 55 feet below flood levels just the year before.
So, however much we tend to be caught up in the weather extreme of the moment, it just seems to be more of Mother Nature’s unpredictability.