At least it’s not as bad as last year.
That’s the solace some take when it comes to drought conditions that have been spreading in scope and intensity across Stephens County and all of Oklahoma over the past several weeks.
But even if there’s a little comfort now in looking back to 2011, it might not last much longer.
“The drought has exploded over the state in the last month,” said Gary McManus, associate state climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. “In some cases, conditions are very similar to last year. Unfortunately it’s probably going to get worse.”
That’s bad news on several fronts, perhaps none more so than farming and ranching.
“We were doing better through the fall and spring, but the problem is we never quite got back to normal,” said Tony Fleetwood, who grows wheat and corn and runs about 3,000 head of cattle each year on about 2,500 acres, most of them in Stephens County.
“We are getting worse as we speak.”
As of July 17, about 64 percent of Oklahoma was at least in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That included almost all of Stephens County. About 15 percent of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought.
As of Thursday, 91 percent of the state was at least in severe drought, and more than 53 percent was in extreme to exceptional drought. Now, a large chunk of western Stephens County is in extreme drought, with the rest in severe drought.
A good chance of rain was forecast for Duncan and Stephens County last Thursday, but the rains didn’t come.
As of Friday, the Ketchum Ranch Mesonet station near Bray had recorded no rain for the past 14 days, and only .23 inches over the past month. There has been 16.7 inches of rain since the first of the year – much higher than this time last year. Only 20.5 inches of rain fell in all of 2011.
And extreme heat arrived much later this year than last.
As of last Wednesday, temperatures had reached 100 or above for 12 days this year. At the same time last year, there already had been 39 days when readings reached 100 or above.
But extreme heat is settling in again, thanks to a high pressure dome that has been sitting in the plains states. The forecast high in Duncan for Sunday was 104, 105 on Monday and 106 on Tuesday.
McManus said drought last year was mature and extreme going into June. It got a later jump this year.
“Last year was so extreme, almost anything that is compared to it is going to come up short, but that doesn’t mean this is now not extreme and severely damaging,” McManus said. “If you look at a normal type of year, this one is pretty severe.”
Max Gallaway, director of the OSU extension office in Stephens County, said many farmers and ranchers in the area are better off than they were this time last year. But the soil was so dry last year, he said, the rains early last spring “didn’t even make a dent.”
“We have not had the opportunity to essentially rebuild or sub-soil moisture, so when you don’t have any deep moisture in the ground, we dry up a lot quicker,” Gallaway said. “And our vegetation is thinning.”
Gallaway said alfalfa for cattle had been doing fairly well this year, but are starting to slow down. Ranchers had hoped to get enough rain to rest some of their pastures from cattle grazing this year, but that opportunity has not really materialized, he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 18 percent of pastures and ranges in Oklahoma were rated very poor heading into last week. Another 34 percent were poor.
And although some farm ponds were at least partially replenished last fall and this past spring, many are starting to dry up again, and quickly.
Fleetwood said he has 15 ponds on land in the Bray area, and all of them dried up last year. There was enough rain this past spring to fill the smaller ones up, but some are still struggling.
And the grass is hurting.
“There is just no sub-soil moisture,” he said.
At least it’s not as bad as last year.
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Duncan elementary schools dismissed at 3 p.m. Monday, but it wasn’t until almost 5 p.m. that students who remained at the schools were released to go home.
Because of two storm systems moving through the area, the school district chose to keep students at the school as a precaution if their parents had not already picked them up. Superintendent Sherry Labyer said the plan was to keep students at the schools until the storms passed or moved away from the area as a way of keeping students safe. Buses didn’t start running until 4:45 p.m.
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Marlow Elementary went to load its buses twice before students were finally able to leave Monday.
Rotation nearing the city made it impossible for students to leave initially, and the school enacted its inclement weather procedures to ensure the safety of its students. Assistant Principal John Smith said the procedures were performed well by students and faculty members.
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Kelly Law and other teachers marshaled students into the main hallway and central bathrooms at Plaza Towers Elementary School just before Monday’s tornado ripped apart the building with winds up to 200 mph.
“It sounded like somebody was going through with a mower and hitting a tin roof,” said Law, a teacher’s assistant. “… I had my eyes shut. All of us teachers were covering as many heads as we could.”
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Most damage in Jefferson County was limited to rural areas, where straight line wind damage was noted. Pea- to marble-sized hail fell twice in Waurika and the surrounding area, with minimal damage.
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Deborah Hudson slowed from the frantic pace just long enough to admit it was probably the busiest day ever at McDonald’s Restaurant in the Duncan Walmart on U.S. 81 here.
“It started around 3:30 p.m.” she said, watching a line 20 people deep patiently wait for a chance to order, “and it hasn’t let up since. We had to bring extra workers in from the other store and we’ve stayed just like this.”
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A tornado touched down in Stephens County Monday about 3 p.m., east of Duncan, and Central High Mayor Julie McKinney snapped a photo of it with her cellphone. Watching it cross State Highway 29, three miles east of Marlow, with her, was Sheriff Wayne McKinney, Marlow Fire Chief Ryan Hall and county Emergency Management Director Gary Ball.
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