By JOSH FUNK
OMAHA, Neb. — The remnants of Hurricane Isaac could bring welcome rain to some states in the Mississippi River valley this week, but experts say it’s unlikely to break the drought gripping the Midwest.
Along with the deluge of rain expected along the Gulf Coast when Isaac makes landfall, the National Weather Service predicts 2 to 6 inches of rain will fall by Sunday morning in eastern Arkansas and southeast Missouri, much of Illinois and Indiana and parts of Ohio.
Those areas are among those hard hit by the drought that stretches from the West Coast east into Kentucky and Ohio, with pockets in Georgia and Alabama. The rain that falls inland likely will ease, but not eliminate, drought because those areas are so dry, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Arkansas rancher Don Rodgers said his area is short 17 inches of rain this year. He said even a couple of inches from Isaac would make a significant difference because he would have water for his cattle and might be able to grow some forage for this winter.
“I’m very sorry for the people in the path of this hurricane. I’m just praying we can get some of the benefit from it up here,” said Rodgers, who lives in Crawford County, a rural area near the Oklahoma border.
Heavy rain, especially if the storm pushes into the Ohio River Valley, would improve traffic on the Mississippi River, where low water levels have been a problem for weeks, National Weather Service hydrologist Marty Pope said. Pope said any rise in the river would help clear clogged shipping channels, which have caused temporary closures.
“If that happens, it would help us out quite a bit,” Pope said.
The low water levels also have prompted companies to reduce loads on barges carrying goods ranging from grain to gasoline, which can mean big losses for shippers.
Port of Greenville, Miss., Director Tommy Hart said he has been praying for rain for weeks but it’s not clear yet how much Isaac will help.
“I may have prayed too hard, I don’t need a hurricane,” he said Tuesday.
Isaac has been gaining strength and it officially became a Category I hurricane on Tuesday before making landfall. The storm’s path may change, but the drought is so widespread that the rain is certain to be welcomed in most areas that get it.
More than half of all U.S. counties have been identified as natural disaster areas this summer, mostly because of drought. Conditions are especially bad in the corn belt. Nearly all of Nebraska, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and more than two-thirds of Iowa are in the worst two stages of drought.
But Svoboda said a high pressure system over the Great Plains this week will keep Isaac’s moisture from reaching much of that area. And Iowa may be too far north to see significant rainfall since the storm will have dropped much of the moisture it picked up in the Gulf by the time it hits there.
Farmers have been hoping for rain all summer, as drought damaged corn, soybeans and other crops.
But Missouri farmer Will Spargo said Isaac is arriving too late in the season to help much. The rain could even slow the corn harvest if fields become too muddy to support combines and grain trucks.
“We’ve gone months and months without rain, and now here it is at harvest that we’re getting rain,” said Spargo, who grows corn, soybeans and rice near Neelyville, Mo.
But farmers and ranchers in the path of the storm still were looking forward to the rain because anything that improves soil moisture will help them next year.
Flooding can be a concern anytime too much rain falls quickly in an area, but officials in Arkansas and Missouri said they weren’t too concerned because the ground is so dry that it should be able to absorb the rain. And streams and lakes in the area should be able to handle runoff because they’re so low.
With as dry as this year has been, many people would probably welcome the moisture even if it is accompanied by some flooding, Arkansas climatologist Michael Borengasser said.
“We’ll take all of it we can get,” Borengasser said.
Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr contributed to this report from Gulfport, Miss.
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National Weather Service five-day precipitation forecast for Isaac: http://1.usa.gov/QP9ypc