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El Nino May Ease Worst Texas Drought, Cut Florida Storm Risk

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El Nino May Ease Worst Texas Drought, Cut Florida Storm Risk

El Nino, The return of an El Nino climate pattern to the Pacific Ocean may relieve the worst Texas drought in 90 years and may reduce the threat of hurricanes ravaging orange groves in Florida.

El Nino, characterized by warming waters in the Pacific, “could bring relief” in the fall and winter to Texas, where farms are suffering from the lack of rain, the National Weather Service said July 16. The El Nino will last through the Northern Hemisphere winter and into 2010, presaging winter storms in the Southwest and a reduction in Atlantic hurricanes, the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said July 9.

The threat of weather damage to U.S. crops helped send cotton to a 10-month high on July 21 on ICE Futures U.S. in New York, while orange-juice prices have surged 39 percent this year. Texas, which has lost $3.6 billion from the current drought, is the nation’s biggest cotton-growing state. Florida is the world’s largest grower of oranges after Brazil.

El Nino “would be a good thing for Texas,” said Drew Lerner, the president of forecaster World Weather Inc. in Overland Park, Kansas. “It would assure planting would occur more normally. There are less hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin in an El Nino year.”

Fewer storms also reduce the threat of damage to oil and natural-gas rigs scattered throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Crude- oil futures jumped 40 percent in 2005, touching a record high after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf.

Rain Aids Crops

Rain during the winter months helps Texas crops because the soil holds the moisture until planting in the spring, said Roger K.Haldenby, the vice president of operations for Plains Cotton Growers Inc. in Lubbock, Texas. Parts of the state have been in a drought since November 2007, according to the government.

Previous El Ninos have helped boost cotton production. After the climate pattern last developed in 2006-2007, Texas yielded 843 pounds of cotton per acre, more than at any time in at least five decades, according to government data.

“When there is a developing El Nino, in past years we’ve definitely noticed the southern part of the U.S., specifically Texas and the high plains of Texas, benefit from increased rainfall,” Haldenby said. “It’s a very important weather phenomenon for us. A wet winter from El Nino sets up the situation well for the following growing season.”

Ranchers Need Rain

Rains from El Nino also may help Texas ranchers reduce the cost of raising cattle by improving pastures, reducing the need to purchase hay or feedgrain. The state is the biggest U.S. cattle producer.

“We would hope it hurries up and develops,” said Bill Hyman, a rancher and executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas in Lockhart. “When you are ranching in a drought, you pay attention to weather. Hay costs about twice what it was in the last wet year.”

A bale of hay weighing 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms) costs $55 to $70 during a dry year, compared with $30 to $35 when rain aids pastures, Hyman said.

One of the first indicators of how El Nino conditions will affect the U.S. will be hurricane activity in the Atlantic next month, said Mike Palmerino, a senior agricultural meteorologist for Minneapolis-based DTN Meteorlogix LLC. The hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

Tropical storms gather pace in the Atlantic Ocean in August and peak around Sept. 10, said Chuck Caracozza, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Miami.

“If the tropical-storm-and-hurricane season is less active than normal, that will tell us this El Nino has the ability to impact weather patterns” later in the year, Palmerino said.

Citrus Crops

Florida’s orange production in the 2006-2007 season fell to the lowest since the 1989-1990 crop year after hurricanes ripped through groves in 2004 and 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Florida citrus growers, and really anyone tied to agriculture, are obsessive weather watchers,” Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for grower group Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland, said in an e-mail. “I’m sure they are following the El Nino patterns. If the forecast is fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic, then that’s terrific news and one less risk growers have to worry as much about.”

Palmerino, the DTN Meteorlogix forecaster, said a strong El Nino also may bring more rain to help ease a drought in California, the largest agricultural state, which produces everything from milk and beef to lettuce and strawberries. Winters also tend to be milder than normal in the northern U.S. and southern Canada during El Nino conditions, he said.

Corn, Soybeans

Corn and soybean harvests in the U.S., the largest grower and exporter, may benefit if El Nino delays frost in the Northern Hemisphere, extending the growing season after planting began later than usual this year, said Peter Meyer, an agricultural-product specialist for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York.

El Nino may strengthen in the months ahead, according to NOAA.

“We believe the El Nino will remain weak to moderate through fall, and it could possibly strengthen thereafter,” said Michelle L’Heureux, who leads the El Nino Southern Oscillation team at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland. The Southern Oscillation Index refers to the atmospheric part of the climate pattern.

In June, surface temperatures in the east-central region of the Pacific met the threshold of reaching 0.5 degree Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) above average, indicating that an El Nino is developing, she said. Related indicators such as decreasing strength in east-to-west trade winds have been observed, L’Heureux said.

NOAA doesn’t expect the strength this year to reach the level of the 1997-1998 El Nino, which was “exceptionally” strong, L’Heureux said. The 2006-2007 event was classified as weak to moderate, after a weak El Nino in 2004-2005 and a strong pattern in 2002-2003, according to NOAA.

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Police: Hard to know Taiwan village mudslide toll

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Police: Hard to know Taiwan village mudslide toll

CISHAN, Taiwan — Police said Wednesday that there is no way to know for sure how many people remain buried in the catastrophic mudslide that struck a remote mountain village in Taiwan over the weekend when a typhoon lashed the region.

Survivors fear that hundreds are dead in the southern village of Shiao Lin, and Cishan police chief Lee Chin-lung said efforts to pluck survivors from the village were continuing for a fourth day.

The doomed community of Shiao Lin and its densely foliated surroundings were buried under tons of mud Sunday morning after torrential rain spawned by Typhoon Morakot unleashed the heaviest flooding Taiwan has seen in 50 years.

Morakot, which means “emerald” in the Thai language, struck the Philippines, Taiwan and China and left at least 93 people dead, most of them in Taiwan. It dumped as much as 80 inches (two meters) of rain on the island before moving on to China, where authorities evacuated 1.5 million people and some 10,000 homes were destroyed.

Shiao Lin and its surroundings remain cut off from the outside world. Rains from the typhoon washed out a nearby bridge, and since Sunday the only access has been by military helicopter.

On Tuesday some 120 chopper flights brought about 300 people from Shiao Lin and its surroundings to Cishan, the hardscrabble town in the southern Taiwanese county of Kaohsiung that is serving as the center for rescue operations.

Lee said that 200 of those air lifted out came from Shiao Lin itself, but it was nearly impossible to estimate how many might still be there — either alive or buried under the rubble.

“We’ve got some people out,” Lee said. “But it is extremely hard to know how many remain there.”

Taiwan’s population register says that Shiao Lin has 1,300 inhabitants, though many, Lee said, were believed to be living elsewhere.

Some rescued villagers said that as many as 600 people may have been buried alive when the mudslide hit. On Tuesday, the National Fire Agency put that number at 100, without offering any evidence to support the claim. The military said later that day its rescue missions had located another 200 survivors from Shiao Lin in a nearby field and will try to ferry them out.

On Tuesday, a government helicopter crashed into a mountain as it flew on a rescue mission in the southern county of Pingtung. Li Wen-cheng, an official with the fire department there, said Wednesday that all three people aboard had been found dead.

The official death toll from Typhoon Morakot stands at 63 in Taiwan, while authorities say another 61 are missing. That figure is mostly people killed from flooding and does not include people from Shiao Lin and its surroundings.

Outside of Taiwan, Morakot also claimed 22 lives in the Philippines. After pummeling Taiwan, Morakot slammed into China’s Fujian province, bringing heavy rain and winds of 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour, according to the China Meteorological Administration.

Authorities ordered 1.5 million people to leave the area, sending them to schools, government offices, hospitals and the homes of relatives, where they will remain until the rain stops and waters recede, the Civil Affairs Ministry has said.

Morakot damaged or destroyed more than 10,000 homes and flooded over 1 million acres (400,000 hectares) of cropland, the ministry said. It said direct economic losses have been estimated at 9.7 billion yuan ($1.4 billion).

The heavy rains triggered a massive landslide in Pengxi, a town in Wenzhou city of eastern China’s Zhejiang province, destroying seven three-story apartment buildings at the foot of a mountain late Monday, an official surnamed Chen from the Pengxi government told The Associated Press.

Xinhua reported that an unknown number of residents were buried in the landslide, though Chen put the number at six. All were pulled out alive but two later died of their injuries, he said.


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China evacuates as storm strikes

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China evacuates as storm strikes

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Nearly one-million people have been evacuated from the coastal regions of China as Typhoon Morakot blew in.

Winds of up 119km/h (74mph) destroyed houses and flooded farmland, a small boy died when a building collapsed, before it weakened to a tropical storm.

In Taiwan, where the typhoon hit on Sunday, 12 people are confirmed dead.

Meanwhile, in Japan nine people are reported dead in floods and landslides after Typhoon Etau brought heavy rain to the west of the country.

Eight people died in Hyogo prefecture, including one man whose car was swept away by a swollen river, and another died in neighbouring Okayama prefecture.

Another 10 people are missing.

‘Treetops visible’

Chinese state media said that the sky turned completely dark in Beibi, Fujian, when Typhoon Morakot made landfall on Sunday morning.

Trees were uprooted as high winds and heavy rain lashed the coast, and more than 2,000 houses are reported to have collapsed.

Some 473,000 residents of Zhejiang province were evacuated before the typhoon struck, as well as 480,000 from Fujian, Xinhua news agency said.

In Zhejiang’s Wenzhou City a four year-old child was killed when a house collapsed. Dozens of roads were said to be flooded and the city’s airport was closed.

Rescuers used dinghies to reach worst-hit areas; in one area only the tops of trees were said to be showing above the floodwater.

Taiwan devastation

Earlier, Morakot dumped 250cm of rain on Taiwan as it crossed the island, washing away bridges and roads.

At least 12 people died and 52 are missing in some of the worst flooding for 50 years, among them a group reportedly washed away from a make-shift shelter in Kaohsiung in the south.

In one incident, an entire hotel – empty at the time – was swept away by the waters.

At least 10,000 people were trapped in three coastal towns, a local official in the southern county of Pingtung said.

In Chihpen, one of Taiwan’s most famous hot spring resorts, a hotel collapsed after flood waters undermined its foundations.

Morakot – which means emerald in Thai – has also contributed to heavy rains in the Philippines. At least 10 people were killed in flooding and landslides in the north.

Typhoons are frequent in the region between July and September.

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