St. Petersburg Times Online: News of Florida

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Is prayer the only answer to drought?

The governor describes the drought as perilous as wildfires rage across the state.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001


The governor describes the drought as perilous as wildfires rage across the state.

TALLAHASSEE -- With wildfires swallowing acres across the state and lake levels plunging to record lows, Gov. Jeb Bush is looking to the heavens for relief.

"I literally pray for rain when I do my prayers in the morning," Bush said before heading into an update on the state's drought.

"I don't think that's inappropriate to do and I hope other people do the same," Bush added.

Bush and his agency chiefs were given the latest news Tuesday on the state's four-year drought, which Bush described as perilous. Bush was told Lake Okeechobee was at its lowest level in recorded history, and that many of the state's rivers were dry for the first time.

Predicted rains over parts of the state in the next five days will have little effect on those levels, although they may help control the wildfires, state officials said.

Part of the Santa Fe River has turned into pasture, with grass rising up where emergency management bureau chief Craig Fugate once paddled his kayak.

"It's never been that dry," Fugate said during the update at the state's Emergency Operations Center.

Fugate, soon to become Florida's acting director of emergency management, showed Bush and others pictures of dwindling rivers.

Agriculture is expected to take a big hit. Already farmers are plowing over fields that have withered from lack of rain. Fish camp operators on Lake Okeechobee are watching their livelihoods dry up with the lake.

Some areas of the state have received federal grants to help cover losses, and Bush promised to try to get more.

But water levels are not the drought's sole effect. Once the summer rains kick in, lightning strikes will start even more wildfires, Fugate said. Already more than 200,000 acres have been scorched this year, with arson being the cause of many of the fires.

Yet the state is going ahead with plans to lay off its remaining 35 fire tower lookouts because of spending cuts sought by Bush.

The layoffs are set for June 30. The state will try to keep the towers staffed with temporary workers during dry seasons, such as now, when conditions are ripe for wildfires, said Jim Karels, fire chief for the Florida Division of Forestry.

"Hiring people part-time in those kind of situations will not be easy," he said. "It'll hurt us down the road."

Karels said the division also plans to step up aerial surveillance, although that, too, is expensive.

The state at one time had more than 100 fire towers. Those remaining are in the most remote areas where fires are least likely to be detected or reported promptly.

The layoffs are in response to the Bush's request that all state agencies reduce their size by 25 percent over the next five years.

The prolonged drought in Florida has brought federal and state emergency officials to the table to work out a plan of action in case public spigots run dry. Federal Emergency Management Director Joe Allbaugh briefly joined Tuesday's conference by phone.

About 150 state and federal officials met in March to discuss what they needed from each other. Those talks are still going on, state officials said Tuesday.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.