Forget Irene: The Drought in Texas Is the Catastrophe That Could Really Hurt

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Tony Gutierrez / AP

Texas may get some relief from triple-digit temperatures this week, but the drought is sure to leave its mark on family budgets

As Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast of the U.S., there was a surge of envy rising deep in the heart of Texas. No one wished ill on a neighbor on the Eastern seaboard, of course, but for some Texans, watching intrepid, slicker-clad reporters standing in water up to their knees was like watching a moon landing. Temperatures in Austin were soaring to 112°F and the drought-stricken Lone Star State was dry as a bone.

There was nary a cloud in the sky Sunday afternoon as Austin marked the all-time highest temperature on record since Texans began making note of such things over 150 years ago. By late afternoon, the sinking sun was a huge searing orange disk in a cloudless sky, seeming to draw burnt orange haze out of the earth on the horizon. Orange was also the color of the ozone forecast, a warning to anyone engaged in outdoor activities, particularly children and individuals with breathing problems, to avoid lengthy, strenuous outdoor activities.

Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico have been caught in a heat wave that feeds on the drought, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. As sunlight hits the ground, Nielsen-Gammon says, it evaporates any moisture in the soil and raises the temperature of the soil. With no moisture, the ground is a virtual hot plate, adding to the misery. That misery is bound to end and the last of the year's 100-plus temperatures may be recorded this week, but this drought will have a ripple effect that will spread beyond the region in the months ahead, having an impact on the one place Americans do not need to feel the hurt: their pocketbooks.

From beef prices to the cost of a pair of socks, the Texas drought of 2011 will leave its mark on family budgets. "This drought is just strangling our agricultural economy," says professor Travis Miller, of Texas A&M University's Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. Losses, so far, are estimated at $5 billion. Texas has lost a little over half of its cotton crop as parched fields brought back memories and statistics not seen since the great dust bowl of 1933. Texas produces 55% of the U.S. crop and two-thirds of America's yield is exported to mills in China, Mexico, Vietnam and Thailand, where textile manufacturers drove prices down by reducing their stockpiles hoping to see a glut on the market and hence lower cotton prices, Miller says. However, their effort did not anticipate the drought and now with shrinking supplies, cotton prices are surging.

The effects go beyond this year's cotton harvest. Ranchers are selling off cattle in historic numbers, Miller says, many of them getting rid of breeding stock that ranchers can no longer feed and water. The state has also lost an entire hay crop, making winter feeding an expensive proposition. While that may mean lower beef prices in the short run as plenty of newly slaughtered cattle hit the marketplace, it likely will mean higher prices down the road since valuable breeding stock is being sold off.

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