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This drought is bad, but U.S. due for worse

As dry spells go, the drought of 1999 is merely average in size.

But if historical climate patterns hold true, Americans are due for a major one that would cover at least a third of the country _ and they are not prepared to deal with it, say government officials and drought experts.

Such droughts come about once a decade; the last one was in 1988.

The country does not have an integrated network of observation stations for monitoring droughts as they develop. Communities frequently do not implement water conservation measures until they are running low on water. Thousands of farmers do not buy crop insurance even though the government heavily subsidizes the premiums.

"We have to do more," said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who heads a new federal commission charged with recommending a national policy for dealing with droughts.

Tornadoes and floods are "like heart attacks, quick strikes that compel people to spring immediately into action. But drought is like a cancer, slow, insidious and not always easy to detect in the early stages," he said.

This year's drought has parched crops from Virginia into parts of the Midwest and forced suburbs from Washington to New York to restrict water use. Philadelphia has banned the use of tinder-dry athletic fields. So far, the drought has affected about 15 percent to 20 percent of the country, about normal for most years.

If it continues into the winter, and weather forecasters think it may, the drought could expand across the nation's heartland and become one of the droughts of the century. If it's not this one, another big drought should be coming soon, said Albert Peterlin, the Agriculture Department's chief meteorologist.

"There is a history of drought spreading westward into the crop area. If this drought were to continue into the winter, it could be the drought we're talking about," he said.

The 1988 drought reached 36 percent of the country and destroyed crops throughout the Plains. Droughts in 1977 and 1963 covered 32 percent of the nation, and in 1954, nearly 50 percent.

At the height of the Dust Bowl, in 1934, two-thirds of the country was in drought.

Close to normal rainfall is expected in the Northeast this fall, but that will not be enough to make up for this year's shortfall, according to the National Weather Service.

Drought experts say farmers and community leaders on the East Coast could have been better prepared for this year's drought if they had been warned sooner or if they had paid closer attention to weather forecasts _ drought conditions were showing up on precipitation reports 13 months ago.

"In this country, we spend very little money with regard to drought. We spend very little money on mitigation," said Don Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. "What we tend to do is wait until the next drought and the federal government opens its checkbook."

He recently told Glickman's commission that the government should force communities and farmers to take responsibility for addressing droughts.

Outside the Plains states, many farmers do not bother with crop insurance. Although more Eastern farmers bought policies this year, according to USDA, coverage levels are still expected to be relatively low.

In Maryland last year, just half the soybean crop was insured and 43 percent of the corn. In Ohio, 48 percent of the corn was covered and 37 percent of the soybeans.

By comparison, 99 percent of the cotton in Texas and 94 percent of the wheat in North Dakota was insured last year. Coverage figures for this year are not available.