VIEW FROM THE HILL- Nation will need disaster relief for oncoming drought, too

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN PAUL PENNER
Whenever one thinks of a major disaster these days, Hurricane Katrina comes to mind.

This “perfect storm” seemed to take a long time to develop before it released its fury on the fragile Gulf Coast region. When it was over, New Orleans lay in ruins and abandoned.

In due time, financial aid from the government and private sources poured in to help with cleanup and restoration of public services and infrastructure. The latest figure quoted to me by sources in the U.S. government was $122 billion and counting.

Another disaster is in the making in the United States. This time, due to its slow-moving nature, it does not attract media attention, nor does it create fear in the minds of the average viewer.

This slow moving “perfect storm” is a full-blown, “Dirty Thirties”-style drought. It did not simply show up one morning on some weather forecaster’s radar screen. It moved across the United States in increments, expanding in size from one year to the next.

In some regions, it is now in its seventh year. Hardest hit are Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, with Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming and most Gulf states experiencing varying degrees of it, from very dry to severe conditions.

I recently visited with farmers from southern coastal states. Their harvested crops of corn and beans were a mere fraction of normal yields.

In Texas, cotton and wheat fields resembled the dust blown plains of the ’30s.

Further north, parts of the Dakotas received less rainfall this year than they received during the dust bowl years. Thanks to their conservation practices, large dust storms are still a thing of the past.

The farmer’s safety net of crop insurance provides less and less coverage as proven yields reflect actual, declining yields. This year in Texas, farmers have lost $4.1 billion in revenue from this slow-moving drought. Every state affected by lack of adequate rainfall reports similar losses.

Considering the circumstances of high energy costs, a fiscally strained federal budget and the never-ending war against terrorism, the crisis may be deepened by the lack of political will by the Bush administration.

In response to the crisis, President Bush ordered a release of counter-cyclical payments to farmers of $700 million, in addition to $80 million in payments to livestock producers.

In reality, the counter-cyclical payments were already scheduled for release as part of the 2002 Farm Bill program, which benefited corn, sorghum, cotton and rice producers who were not affected by the drought.

Ironically, the farmers most affected by the drought-wheat growers from Texas to the Dakotas-received no benefit at all.

Last week, yours truly, along with a coalition of farm groups traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for real disaster relief for farmers and ranchers who have experienced multiple years of drought.

Members from a dozen state wheat associations, not to mention grain sorghum, corn, cotton, rice and livestock groups, joined with the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmer’s Union in a coordinated effort to bring national media and congressional attention to this nationwide tragedy.

This effort to pass the $6 billion package was largely bipartisan, even drawing support from Congress and Senate officials whose districts were not affected by the drought. For example, Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro enthusiastically endorsed the relief package.

Thanks to efforts by our state’s elected representatives, especially the efforts of Congressman Jerry Moran, we were able to increase support in the House, even while encountering resistance from the House leadership and the Bush administration.

The challenge we face today, however, relates to following the correct procedure as there is not an adequate vehicle-such as a proposed bill coming up for debate and vote-to attach the appropriations package.

Any attachment must be “germane” to the main legislation in order to survive on the floor. In short, the final chapter of this story remains to be written.

Whatever our perceptions, change is coming to agriculture in ways we did not anticipate five or 10 years ago. One of the greatest instruments of change-weather-has the greatest potential to create long-term effects that changes our nation’s future. It can change population patterns and affect our economy at will.

In the future, food and energy security will share equal billing if droughts increase in magnitude and severity. The production of food and renewable energy resources will become more important to our nation’s security than ever before.

The question remains: Are we able to interpret these weather events and understand the necessity of sustaining the infrastructure of agriculture so we never have to depend on overseas sources for our food supply?

I hope we have the will to be prepared.

Do we have the political will to assist those most affected by any major weather-related disaster?

We rose to the challenge to assist Katrina victims, albeit in a clumsy manner. As to the severe drought we are facing today, the question deserves a rational, favorable response from the Bush administration.

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