Mississippi Gulf Coast facing "extreme drought"

GULFPORT, MS - High water from the swollen Mississippi River continues to threaten parts of our state with flooding, but the growing problem along the Mississippi Gulf Coast involves a lack of water.

This year's rainfall shortage means the coastal counties are currently facing "extreme drought" conditions, and with minimal rain in the forecast, those dry conditions will likely worsen.

The city of Gulfport beautification crews give dry plants at the Lyman Community Center a welcome watering.

Two crews use 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of water a day, trying to keep decorative landscaping throughout the city alive.

It's the same challenge facing home owners with dry grass and farmers with parched fields.

"Right now it's pretty bad. The grass is not growing. Farmers are not able to cut hay. What little hay they are cutting is not as good of quality as it could be if we get some rain," said district conservationist Tyree Harrington.

Much of the forest is also becoming brown and brittle. Land owners who plant pine trees desperately need some rain to insure their investment.

"You're spending anywhere from 100 to 200 to 300 dollars an acre to replant these areas. And a drought can do away with all of it, and you have to start over again," said area forester, Jim Barnes.

Rainfall numbers tell the story of a parched Mississippi Gulf Coast. So far this year, the Biloxi-Gulfport area has received just over 10 inches of rain. Normal rainfall for this point in the year is more than twice that, at nearly 25 inches.

More than a nuisance, extreme drought can also be dangerous.

"The problem here is we had some apartment complexes and businesses around the corner," said Harrison County Fire Marshal Pat Sullivan, as he walked through a burned out section of woods off County Farm Road.

Fire danger escalates with lack of rainfall. A wildfire burned 125 acres along County Farm Road over the weekend.

"If you're out here doing a little trash fire or burning some debris and the wind starts going, it gets away from you. It hits the woods; it just takes off. The next thing you're doing is trying to chase it. And a small fire becomes a large fire," said Sullivan.

Sullivan said it's not just the drought, but rather the combination of drought and high winds that raises the fire danger.

Although there is "not" a burn ban in effect, Sullivan said anyone burning trash or yard debris should use extreme caution.

He said that means keeping the fire small, keeping water nearby to control it and making sure the fire is completely out when you leave it.

Copyright 2011 WLOX. All rights reserved.