Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

From Drought to Flood to Drought in 60 Days on the Texas Plains

  • South Goes from wet to dry in the course of a few months
  • El Nino is both hero and villain in the southern drought

Across eastern Texas, parts of Louisiana and Mississippi the land went from moist to parched in a matter of weeks.

Drought, which had been eradicated in Texas last spring, returned and spread across the South, reaching as far as the East Coast, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“I would consider it a flash-drought situation,” said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington.

Flash droughts get their names because they happen fast. In May, some of the worst flooding in recent memory swept across east Texas. Parts of the region are now struggling with extreme drought.

“On the scale of drought, it is pretty quick,” Rippey said.

The Drought Monitor shows just how fast the weather changed. On July 14, less than 3 percent of Texas was abnormally dry or in drought. Two weeks later, that had rose to almost 14 percent. A month later it had reached almost 40 percent and it’s now just over half the state.

The situation in Louisiana is even more dramatic. None of the state was in drought on July 14, compared with almost all of it now. Mississippi jumped from 9 percent to about 74 percent in the same time frame.

Persistent high pressure has kept thunderstorms and showers to a minimum, Rippey said. Rainfall has lagged behind normal levels since July in Waco, Texas, Jackson, Mississippi and Lafayette, Louisiana, according to the National Weather Service.

Since the drought took off in Texas and other southern states, it has also started creeping up the East Coast, Rippey said. Drought or dry conditions now stretch from Maine to the Florida Panhandle, according to the Drought Monitor.

While high pressure has done its bit to keep the rain away in the eastern and southern U.S., it didn’t act alone. 

El Nino has also got involved and influenced events, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

El Ninos are known for creating wind shear across the Atlantic that diminishes the power, longevity and strength of hurricanes and tropical storms. As a result, there haven’t been any big storms in the Gulf of Mexico to flood Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi with moisture, Svoboda said.

“We haven’t had any organized tropical moisture reaching the Gulf or Atlantic coast,” Rippey said.

The drought experts aren’t ready to worry yet.

The El Nino that has taken away Atlantic moisture this summer could deliver Pacific rains this winter.

Another aspect of El Nino is that it can suppress the winter storm track across the U.S. That means a steady stream of rain, and sometimes snow, stretching from southern California to the Atlantic coast.

In 2010, the last time an El Nino held sway during the winter in the U.S., the Dallas-Fort Worth area received a record 12.5 inches (32 centimeters) of snow in 24 hours.

A winter like that might be all the South needs to reverse the drought.

“Hopefully, we will squelch that in the winter,” Svoboda said. “If El Nino does what it is supposed to do, we should see improvement there.”

Until then the land will stay dry and the drought will keep spreading.

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