Feeling the heat: More than 45 million people across 14 Southern states now in 'flash drought'

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Luna gets water from Jonathan Dreiling during a Kickstart soccer session at Highland Park Commons Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Luna was keeping a close eye as Kickstart participants were getting water from the cooler and was eager when Dreiling found a way to make a temporary water bowl for her. Temperatures got into the upper 90s Thursday.

More than 45 million people across 14 Southern states are now in the midst of what's being called a "flash drought" that's cracking farm soil, drying up ponds and raising the risk of wildfires, scientists said Thursday.

The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday shows extreme drought conditions in parts of Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina and the Florida panhandle. Lesser drought conditions also have expanded in parts of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Overall, nearly 20% of the lower 48 U.S. states is experiencing drought conditions. Portions of North Georgia, including Gilmer and Pickens counties, and Jackson County in Alabama have been placed in the extreme drought area. Other counties in the tri-state Chattanooga region are in the moderate-severe range.

The drought accelerated rapidly in September, as record heat combined with little rainfall to worsen the parched conditions, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska.

"Typically we look at drought as being a slow onset, slow-developing type phenomenon compared to other disasters that rapidly happen, so this flash drought term came about," Fuchs said. "The idea is that it's more of a rapidly developing drought situation compared to what we typically see."


Abnormal: Topsoil moisture decreases and planting is delayed; fire risk is elevated Moderate: Agriculture ponds dry up, farmers are hauling water and hazy yield is low; more insects and voles are observed but mosquito numbers are down, disease spreads in trout and fish hatcheries close; leaves fall early; conditions are very dusty; fire danger increases and burn bans are implemented; water demand is high Severe: Corn is severely stressed, producers are importing hay and selling livestock; air quality is poor, burn bans are implemented and active wildfires are reported; aquatic species die off; streams and creeks are extremely low or dry and well levels are lowering; and voluntary water conversation is requested and water quality is poor Extreme: Water supply is inadequate for wildfire Exceptional: Large wildfires are reported Source: U.S. Drought Monitor

This week, record temps have scorched the Chattanooga area.

On Wednesday, the city hit 100 degrees, the highest October temperature ever. Thursday reached 98, six degrees higher than the previous record of 92. Those high temps are expected to linger through Friday before things begin to cool down. The weekend will see highs in the mid- to upper 80s, then Monday it will only reach about 72, according to WRCB-TV Meteorologist David Karnes.

The heatwave in the Tennessee Valley is also setting power demand records for October following the highest average peak load in September for the Tennessee Valley Authority as air conditioners are running more to try to cool homes and offices across TVA's seven-state region. TVA reached the second highest October power peak on record on Tuesday and was expecting a comparable or perhaps even higher peak today.

"This is an extremely high demand for this time of year so we're having to work extra hard to make sure we keep the lights on," TVA spokeswoman Malinda Hunter said. "We have begun to internally try to conserve power ourselves under a what we call an internal power supply alert."

TVA implemented steps to limit its own energy use, including keeping its offices and plants at warmer temperatures.

Chattanooga's hottest days of 2019

100 degrees on Aug. 13 103 degrees on Sept. 13 100 degrees on Sept. 17 100 degrees on Oct. 2 Source: National Weather Service


Friday: High 92; low 65 Saturday: High 88; low 65 Sunday: High 85; low 64 Monday: High 72; low 55 Tuesday: High: 78; low 53 Source: WRCB-TV

While TVA workers may be sweating a bit more, Hunter said TVA isn't asking yet that any of its customers conserve or limit their power use and so far TVA has been able to fully meet all of its demand.

TVA's power peak Tuesday of 28,551 megawatts was the second highest for October in the 86-year history of TVA. But the peak was still well below the all-time peak of 33,482 megawatts TVA reached in August 2007 when temperatures across the Tennessee Valley averaged 102 degrees.

TVA is having to meet this week's power peaks with two of its seven nuclear reactors shut down for refueling and maintenance outages and another coasting down toward a maintenance outage next week. TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said Browns Ferry Unit 2 and Watts Bar Unit 1 are offline and Sequoyah Unit 1 is operating at 75% power as it prepares for an upcoming outage.

"This time of year is typically when we start to bring down our units for maintenance outages because it's typically much cooler," Hunter said. "Fortunately, our diverse portfolio and power purchase agreements help us meet high demands, even with some of our units offline."

TVA is still getting extra power from its 29 hydroelectric dams on the Tennessee River system, but such generation has been limited after below average rainfall during both August and September.

"We just wrapped up the second driest September on record with barely more than a half inch of rain Valley-wide for the month," Hunter said. "Normal average rainfall for September is over 3.5 inches. Despite the dry conditions, we still have water stored in tributaries and we continue to meet flow requirements for water quality and supply."

Hunter said consumers can find advice on how to limit their energy consumption and trim what will likely be higher electric bills this month for most homeowners by visiting the website www.Energyright.com.

As the Chattanooga area continues to deal with the heat, Fuchs said he expects scientists to have further discussions about flash droughts, and perhaps develop parameters for what constitutes a flash drought.

In Mississippi, wildfires have been on the rise, Gov. Phil Bryant said this week, as he ordered a statewide burn ban. Outdoor burning is also restricted in parts of several other states including Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia, according to reports from the National Drought Mitigation Center.

The drought was also affecting some water supplies across the region. Lake levels have been falling throughout Georgia, including at Lake Lanier, which provides much of Atlanta's drinking water.

In North Carolina, rivers and streams are running low, Rebecca Cumbie-Ward, the state climatologist, said in a statement. Some North Carolina water systems are limiting use, and state officials are asking residents to follow those water restrictions .

Alabama Power said last week it was reducing water releases from its hydroelectric dams because of the drought. The move was intended to prevent lakes from shrinking too much.

The Drought Monitor is produced by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Staff writer Dave Flessner and the Associated Press contributed to this story.