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Drought in US Called 'Creeping Disaster' - 2002-03-15

About half of the United States is mired in a drought. Conditions range from extreme in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast to abnormally dry in the upper Midwest. Federal weather officials have little good news in their spring drought forecast.

Scientists call drought a "creeping disaster" because unlike other natural calamities, it develops slowly. But droughts can inflict as much damage as other disasters. Crop and cattle losses from a 1988 U.S. drought equaled those of severe hurricanes and floods.

Officials believe the current drought in large parts of the United States can be traced back to 1998.

Retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher is the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is pessimistic about the NOAA's spring drought outlook.

"Normal storms and rains that we expect in the early spring will not be enough to erase water deficits and break our drought conditions," he said.

Admiral Lautenbacher says the eastern United States can expect a gradual improvement in weather, but with persistent water shortages. But for much of the west, including all of Arizona and Montana, the news is bad. "The situation is very bleak out there. The deficits are so great that it's relatively inconceivable that they can break out of this in one season," he said.

Scientists define a drought as a persistent moisture deficit that impacts plant and animal life. They are still unclear about what causes the abnormal storm patterns in the atmosphere that lead to droughts,

Retired Army Brigadier General Jack Kelly is head of the U.S. National Weather Service.

"I'd attribute it to natural variability. These things happen. Drought is not an unusual occurrence in the United States of America," he said. "It's somewhere every year, it happens to be more widespread right now than it has been in many past years."

General Kelly says the only true drought breaker is a good soaking rain brought on by tropical storms and hurricanes.