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A Times Editorial

Leadership during the drought

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000

Florida homeowners knew the statewide drought was a disaster when their grass turned brown and breezes carried the smell of smoke. On Friday, Gov. Jeb Bush made it official that severe weather conditions have brought catastrophe to state farmers and ranchers as well.

Bush asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman on Friday to declare Florida a natural disaster area. If granted, the designation would make farmers and ranchers eligible for low-interest loans and, possibly, other congressional relief.

This could be just the beginning of dire pronouncements on the drought's impact. Growers report losses of up to 80 percent of pasture land and 60 to 100 percent of soybean, corn and watermelon crops. Low oxygen levels in lakes and ponds threaten aquaculture, and ranchers are selling underweight cattle at cut-rate prices.

State Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford puts the losses at $188-million, but that number should grow as crop reports are filed in coming weeks. That doesn't take into account damage done by fires. This year, 3,697 fires have burned 134,581 acres, and dozens of new fires are sparked every week.

As Florida browns, wilts and burns, we will need leadership and cooperation to endure. Bush took an important step by seeking federal help for beleaguered farmers and ranchers. He should also lead the debate over fireworks as July 4 approaches. Some counties have banned the sale, and even the use, of fireworks except for certain public displays. However, Bush ignored a request by fire chiefs for a statewide fireworks ban. He wants local governments to make the decision.

The more Florida turns to tinder, the higher the odds that wayward fireworks could spark a conflagration. The governor should at least urge each county to allow only organized fireworks displays that are run professionally.

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