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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Heavy rains hit Manila, killing at least 9

MANILA, Philippines – Relentless rains submerged half of the sprawling Philippine capital, triggered a landslide that killed nine people and sent emergency crews scrambling Tuesday to rescue tens of thousands of residents who called media outlets pleading for help.

A man carries a girl on his shoulders as they cross a flooded area in Quezon City, north of Manila. By Aaron Favila, AP

A man carries a girl on his shoulders as they cross a flooded area in Quezon City, north of Manila.

By Aaron Favila, AP

A man carries a girl on his shoulders as they cross a flooded area in Quezon City, north of Manila.

The deluge, the worst since 2009 when hundreds died in rampaging flash floods, was set off by the seasonal monsoon that overflowed major dams and rivers in Manila and surrounding provinces.

The capital and other parts of the country already were saturated from last week's Typhoon Saola, which battered Manila and the north for several days before blowing away Friday. That storm was responsible for at least 53 deaths.

"It's like a water world," said Benito Ramos, head of the government's disaster response agency. He said the rains flooded 50 percent of metropolitan Manila on Monday evening, and about 30 percent remained under waist- or neck-deep waters Tuesday.

He urged residents in areas prone to landslides and floods to stay in evacuation centers. Because the soil is saturated, even a little rain could be dangerous, he added.

"Now that it's getting dark, I would like to repeat, if the rains are heavy you should be at the evacuation centers," he said, warning that rescue operations are more difficult at night and could put responders at risk.

Manila's weather bureau said a tropical storm off eastern China had intensified monsoon rains in the Philippines, which were forecast to last until Thursday.

In Manila's suburban Quezon City, a landslide hit a row of shanties perched below a hill, burying nine people, according to Ramos.

Army troops and police dug frantically to save those buried, including four children, as surviving relatives and neighbors wept. All the victims were recovered, some whose bodies were found near an entombed shanty's door as they apparently tried to flee.

"My wife, children and grandchild are down there," a drenched Jessie Bailon told The Associated Press while watching rescuers dig into a muddy mound where his shanty once stood.

National police chief Nicanor Bartolome went to the scene and ordered all other slum dwellers to be evacuated from the still-soggy area.

TV footage showed rescuers dangling on ropes to bring children and other residents to safety from flooded houses across the city. Many residents trapped in their homes called radio and TV stations desperately asking for help.

"We need to be rescued," Josephine Cruz told DZMM radio as water rose around her house in Quezon City, saying she was trapped in her two-story house with 11 other people, including her 83-year-old mother. "We can't get out because the floodwaters are now higher than people."

ABC-CBN TV network reported receiving frantic calls from people whose relatives were trapped in the deluge, many without food since Tuesday morning. They included a pregnant woman with a baby who wanted to be rescued from a roof and about 55 people who scrambled to the third floor of a Quezon city house as water rose below them.

Vehicles and even heavy trucks struggled to navigate water-clogged roads, where hundreds of thousands of commuters were stranded. Many cars were stuck in the muddy waters.

The government suspended work and classes Tuesday and Wednesday. Some shopping malls opened with limited grocery supplies that were quickly picked up by shoppers waiting in long lines.

The La Mesa dam, which supplies water to the capital of 12 million people, spilled excess water early Tuesday into the rivers flowing into Quezon City, as well as the neighborhoods of Malabon, Valenzuela and Caloocan, where several villages were submerged.

Along the swollen Marikina River, nearly 20,000 residents have been moved away from the riverbanks but many others asked to be rescued. Mayor Del de Guzman pleaded for patience and said overwhelmed rescue teams would try to reach everyone.

President Benigno Aquino III called an emergency meeting of Cabinet officials and disaster-response agencies. He ordered officials to make sure all residents were accounted for in flooded villages and discussed how flooded hospitals could be helped in case they were hit by power outages.

The Philippine Stock Exchange in the flooded financial district of Makati was closed. Also closed was the U.S. Embassy along Manila Bay in the historic old city, which was flooded last week when a storm surge pushed the water over the seawall.

In 2009, massive flooding spawned by a typhoon devastated Manila and surrounding areas, killing hundreds. The state weather bureau said that the current flooding was not as severe and that the weather may start to improve later this week.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.For more information about reprints & permissions, visit our FAQ's. To report corrections and clarifications, contact Standards Editor Brent Jones. For publication consideration in the newspaper, send comments to letters@usatoday.com. Include name, phone number, city and state for verification. To view our corrections, go to corrections.usatoday.com.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Thousands of fish die as Midwest streams heat up

LINCOLN, Neb. – Thousands of fish are dying in the Midwest as the hot, dry summer dries up rivers and causes water temperatures to climb in some spots to nearly 100 degrees.

Dead fish float in a drying pond near Rock Port, Mo., in July. Multitudes of fish are dying in the Midwest as the sizzling summer dries up rivers and raises water temperatures in some spots to nearly 100 degrees. By Nati Harnik, AP

Dead fish float in a drying pond near Rock Port, Mo., in July. Multitudes of fish are dying in the Midwest as the sizzling summer dries up rivers and raises water temperatures in some spots to nearly 100 degrees.

By Nati Harnik, AP

Dead fish float in a drying pond near Rock Port, Mo., in July. Multitudes of fish are dying in the Midwest as the sizzling summer dries up rivers and raises water temperatures in some spots to nearly 100 degrees.

About 40,000 shovelnose sturgeon were killed in Iowa last week as water temperatures reached 97 degrees. Nebraska fishery officials said they've seen thousands of dead sturgeon, catfish, carp, and other species in the Lower Platte River, including the endangered pallid sturgeon.

And biologists in Illinois said the hot weather has killed tens of thousands of large- and smallmouth bass and channel catfish and is threatening the population of the greater redhorse fish, a state-endangered species.

So many fish died in one Illinois lake that the carcasses clogged an intake screen near a power plant, lowering water levels to the point that the station had to shut down one of its generators.

"It's something I've never seen in my career, and I've been here for more than 17 years," said Mark Flammang, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "I think what we're mainly dealing with here are the extremely low flows and this unparalleled heat."

The fish are victims of one of the driest and warmest summers in history. The federal U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states are experiencing some form of drought, and the Department of Agriculture has declared more than half of the nation's counties — nearly 1,600 in 32 states — as natural disaster areas.

More than 3,000 heat records were broken over the last month.

Iowa DNR officials said the sturgeon found dead in the Des Moines River were worth nearly $10 million, a high value based in part on their highly sought eggs, which are used for caviar. The fish are valued at more than $110 a pound.

Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, said the sturgeon kills don't appear to have reduced the supply enough to hurt regional caviar suppliers.

Flammang said weekend rain improved some of Iowa's rivers and lakes, but temperatures were rising again and straining a sturgeon population that develops health problems when water temperatures climb into the 80s.

"Those fish have been in these rivers for thousands of thousands of years, and they're accustomed to all sorts of weather conditions," he said. "But sometimes, you have conditions occur that are outside their realm of tolerance."

In Illinois, heat and lack of rain has dried up a large swath of Aux Sable Creek, the state's largest habitat for the endangered greater redhorse, a large bottom-feeding fish, said Dan Stephenson, a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"We're talking hundreds of thousands (killed), maybe millions by now," Stephenson said. "If you're only talking about game fish, it's probably in the thousands. But for all fish, it's probably in the millions if you look statewide."

Stephenson said fish kills happen most summers in small private ponds and streams, but the hot weather this year has made the situation much worse.

"This year has been really, really bad — disproportionately bad, compared to our other years," he said.

Stephenson said a large number of dead fish were sucked into an intake screen near Powerton Lake in central Illinois, lowering water levels and forcing a temporary shutdown at a nearby power plant.

A spokesman for Edison International, which runs the coal-fired plant, said workers shut down one of its two generators for several hours two weeks ago because of extreme heat and low water levels at the lake, which is used for cooling.

In Nebraska, a stretch of the Platte River from Kearney in the central part of the state to Columbus in the east has gone dry and killed a "significant number" of sturgeon, catfish and minnows, said fisheries program manager Daryl Bauer. Bauer said the warm, shallow water has also killed an unknown number of endangered pallid sturgeon.

"It's a lot of miles of river, and a lot of fish," Bauer said. "Most of those fish are barely identifiable. In this heat, they decay really fast."

Bauer said a single dry year usually isn't enough to hurt the fish population. But he worries dry conditions in Nebraska could continue, repeating a stretch in the mid-2000s that weakened fish populations.

Kansas also has seen declining water levels that pulled younger, smaller game fish away from the vegetation-rich shore lines and forced them to cluster, making them easier targets for predators, said fisheries chief Doug Nygren of the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Nygren said he expects a drop in adult walleye populations in the state's shallower, wind-swept lakes in southern Kansas. But he said other species, such as large-mouth bass, can tolerate the heat and may multiply faster without competition from walleye.

"These last two years are the hottest we've ever seen," Nygren said. "That really can play a role in changing populations, shifting it in favor of some species over others. The walleye won't benefit from these high-water temperatures, but other species that are more tolerant may take advantage of their declining population."

Geno Adams, a fisheries program administrator in South Dakota, said there have been reports of isolated fish kills in its manmade lakes on the Missouri River and others in the eastern part of the state. But it's unclear how much of a role the heat played in the deaths.

One large batch of carp at Lewis and Clark Lake in the state's southeast corner had lesions, a sign they were suffering from a bacterial infection. Adams said the fish are more prone to sickness with low water levels and extreme heat. But he added that other fish habitat have seen a record number this year thanks to the 2011 floods.

"When we're in a drought, there's a struggle for water and it's going in all different directions," Adams said. "Keeping it in the reservoir for recreational fisheries is not at the top of the priority list."

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Rover offers Mars weather forecast: Pink skies, dust storms

PASADENA, Calif. – Manuel de la Torre is a Martian weatherman, and the forecast for Curiosity's landing site calls for clear skies now but dust storms in the not-so-distant future.

A color image from NASA's Curiosity Rover shows the pebble-covered surface of Mars. NASA/Getty Images

A color image from NASA's Curiosity Rover shows the pebble-covered surface of Mars.

NASA/Getty Images

A color image from NASA's Curiosity Rover shows the pebble-covered surface of Mars.

"We are expecting a clear day here on Mars with thin ice clouds on the horizon," he said, and "balmy, minus-20-degree temperatures. But overnight, it might get chilly — all the way down to minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit."

Winds are expected to be calm. Skies should be pink.

But the winter season on the Red Planet is nearing an end. Spring and summer are bound to bring dust devils — swirling columns of dust that look and act like tornadoes.

Some of those will spin up into monster storms that can smother the planet.

Curiosity carries a sophisticated weather station that will enable De la Torre and other scientists to examine the phenomenon.

"We want to see how the dust devils form, and why do some dust devils evolve into dust storms that swallow the whole planet, and others don't," De la Torre said.

Two finger-like booms sticking out of Curiosity's tall camera-and-chemical laser mast will measure wind speed, wind direction, air temperature and relative humidity and ground temperature.

The rover also sports a device that measures air pressure and an ultraviolet sensor that records six different wavelength bands in the ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The Martian weather data will play a key role in determining whether the planet is, or ever was, habitable — whether conditions ever were, or are, conducive to the formation of primitive life.

Made in Spain, the weather station will provide scientists with data that show the environment that astronauts would encounter just south of the equator on the eastern side of the planet.

The Curiosity rover landed early Monday, and the weather station was powered up almost immediately. Over the next two years, the weather station will be recording data at least five minutes every hour.

A married father of two, De la Torre is one of a team of about 40 engineers and scientists assembled to develop the weather station and analyze the data it returns to Earth.

In the grand scheme of things, the study of Martian weather and climatology is a relatively new field.

Said De la Torre: "The fun thing about this is we know that we don't know, and we expect to learn, and we're looking forward to it."

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hydropower supply in Midwest, Plains ample despite drought

The drought worsened this week in the Midwest and the Plains, but the region's hydroelectric power has not diminished because abundant 2011 rain and snow filled reservoirs.

Dried corn stalks in a field in Yutan, Neb., on July 31. By Nati Harnik, AP

Dried corn stalks in a field in Yutan, Neb., on July 31.

By Nati Harnik, AP

Dried corn stalks in a field in Yutan, Neb., on July 31.

Nearly a quarter of the U.S. is enduring "extreme" to "exceptional" drought, according to the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center. That's the highest percentage in those categories since record-keeping began in 2000. The entire states of Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado are in drought.

But hydroelectric power generated by six big dams on the Missouri River in the Dakotas and Montana was 12% above normal, providing enough electricity in July to power 90,000 homes for a year, says Mike Swenson, Missouri River power production team leader for the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Omaha.

The corps increased flow out of the dams to maintain enough water for navigation on the river from Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota to where the Missouri joins the Mississippi River at St. Louis, and the higher flows led to increased power production, he says.

"If it continues to be dry like this into the fall, then once we get into the next year, we will start to see some reductions," he says.

Buck Feist, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation's Great Plains regional office, which oversees 79 reservoirs and 20 hydroelectric plants in nine states from Texas to Canada, says "reservoirs are working pretty much as they were designed — to store water to see you through these drought areas."

Overall demand for U.S. electricity did not hit an all-time high in July, despite temperatures that made it the hottest month on record in the USA. That's largely because of conservation practices and a soft economy, Edison Electric Institute spokesman Jim Owen says.

"Power demands are always higher in the summer when it is hot," he says, but "demand has been a little bit soft overall for the last couple of years for one basic, fundamental reason: Even though the economy has improved a little bit, it is still a little soft around the edges."

Peak demand so far in 2012 for the nine states that are all or partially served by the Little Rock-based Southwest Power Pool (SPP) was 53,690 megawatts on July 31, more than 1,000 megawatts below the Aug 2, 2011, peak.

SPP spokesman Pete Hoelscher says that power company officials are closely monitoring river levels for hydropower impact. If the heat persists, he says, demand for power could surge later this month when schools begin classes.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Tropical Storm Ernesto weakens over Mexico

VERACRUZ, Mexico – Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it moved inland Friday, killing seven people and dumping rains in the mountains of Mexico's flood-prone southern Gulf region.

Vendors that were caught unprepared try to recover their belongings after high waves dragged their beach stalls into the sea in Veracruz, Mexico. By Felix Marquez, AP

Vendors that were caught unprepared try to recover their belongings after high waves dragged their beach stalls into the sea in Veracruz, Mexico.

By Felix Marquez, AP

Vendors that were caught unprepared try to recover their belongings after high waves dragged their beach stalls into the sea in Veracruz, Mexico.

In Veracruz state, two people were killed early Friday, including a teenage girl who was inside a car dragged by a river current and a 62-year-old man who was struck by lightning, the state's civil protection department said in a statement.

It said three members of a family died Thursday night when strong winds knocked down a tree that fell on their car, the state's civil protection department said in a statement.

A 38-year-old man, his wife and their 8-year-old boy were killed, it added.

In neighboring Tabasco state, two fishermen drowned when the stormed passed through the area Thursday, Gov. Andres Granier told reporters.

Granier said the storm's strong winds ripped rooftops from several homes but residents refused to evacuate, fearing their possessions might be stolen. "People have chosen to stay in their homes and we are helping them," he said.

Ernesto came ashore Thursday near the waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company in the far southern Gulf of Mexico. The government closed its largest Gulf coast port, Veracruz, and the smaller ports of Alvarado and Coatzacoalcos.

Coatzacoalcos, a major oil port, got seven inches (177 millimeters) of rain in the 24 hours before Ernesto's center passed just a few miles (kilometers) away, according to Mexico's weather service. San Pedro in the neighboring state of Tabasco had seen more than 10 inches (273 millimeters).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto's sustained winds had decreased to 35 mph (55 kph) by early Friday. It said the storm would continue weakening and should dissipate by midday Friday, although it warned that heavy rains could continue into Friday night.

Ernesto was a weak hurricane when it made its first landfall late Tuesday near the cruise ship port of Mahahual in Yucatan, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula and then spun into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.

Early Friday, the storm was centered about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Oaxaca, Mexico, and moving west near 13 mph (20 kph).

The U.S. hurricane center said Ernesto still had the potential to cause flooding and could produce rainfalls of up to 15 inches in some parts of the mountainous areas of Veracruz, Tabasco, Puebla and Oaxaca states before dissipating.

There were no reports of major flooding in Veracruz state and there have been only minor landslides on some roads, said Raul Zarrabal, the state's communications secretary.

A new tropical depression formed in the Atlantic on Thursday far from land. It was the seventh tropical depression to form in the Atlantic and forecasters said it could strengthen into a tropical storm Friday as it took a path toward the Caribbean. Early Friday, it had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) and was 930 miles (1,495 kilometers) east of the Windward Islands.

The Atlantic hurricane season got off to an early start and will likely stay busy, producing a few more storms than originally predicted, U.S. forecasters said Thursday.

Forecasters said warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures and wind patterns that favor storm formation mean chances are higher for an above-normal season. However, that is tempered with the expected development of an El Nino weather pattern over the Pacific that may suppress storms later in the season.

In the Pacific, Gilma weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm and was not seen as a threat to land. It was about 665 miles (1,070 kilometers) west-southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, with maximum sustained winds near 65 mph (100 kph).

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.For more information about reprints & permissions, visit our FAQ's. To report corrections and clarifications, contact Standards Editor Brent Jones. For publication consideration in the newspaper, send comments to letters@usatoday.com. Include name, phone number, city and state for verification. To view our corrections, go to corrections.usatoday.com.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Feds bump hurricane forecast to 8

Federal forecasters say warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures point to an above-average number of hurricanes -- as many as eight -- in the Atlantic Basin this season, including three "major" hurricanes, despite the arrival of of El Niño this month or in September.

UPDATE:  Ernesto rakes Mexico

Meteorologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expect 12 to 17 named storms for the full season, running from June 1 to Nov. 30, including five to eight hurricanes.

NOAA predicts two or three "major" hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph.

Six named storms have already formed this year, including Hurricanes Chris and Ernesto. Tropical Storm Debby did the most damage in the U.S., killing seven people and drenching northern Florida.

"We are increasing the likelihood of an above-normal season because storm-conducive wind patterns and warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures are now in place in the Atlantic," says Gerry Bell, a hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center. "These conditions are linked to the ongoing high activity era for Atlantic hurricanes that began in 1995. Also, strong early season activity is generally indicative of a more active season."

However, NOAA forecasters also say that El Niño, which is a warming of tropical Pacific Ocean water that affects weather around the world, will likely develop this month or in September.

Bell says El Niño is "a competing factor" because it strengthens the vertical wind shear over the Atlantic, which suppresses storm development, but is not likely to weigh in until later in the season.

Earlier this month, another updated forecast -- from experts at Colorado State University -- predicted 14 named storms, including six hurricanes, of which two would be classified as "major."

A typical year brings 12 named storms, including six hurricanes.


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After Pocono death, should NASCAR do more to protect fans?

LONG POND, Pa. – With the drop of a red flag, NASCAR can stop an event whenever racing conditions are deemed dangerous.

Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky conceded that stopping a race is ultimately up to NASCAR. A fatal lightning strike occurred just seven minutes after NASCAR called Sunday's race. By David Kidwell, AP

Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky conceded that stopping a race is ultimately up to NASCAR. A fatal lightning strike occurred just seven minutes after NASCAR called Sunday's race.

By David Kidwell, AP

Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky conceded that stopping a race is ultimately up to NASCAR. A fatal lightning strike occurred just seven minutes after NASCAR called Sunday's race.

Should the sanctioning body do the same when the grandstands surrounding the track are in peril?

That was the question facing the sport Monday as track promoters and NASCAR executives scrutinized their race procedures and emergency warning systems after a fan was killed by a lightning strike after Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway.

"The tricky part is making the decision to clear the facility," said Ed Klima, director of emergency services for Dover Motorsports, which owns Dover International Speedway. "The facility is ultimately responsible for fans' safety. With that said, it's obviously very difficult to get people to leave if there are still cars going around the track."

Pocono cleared its grandstands after a torrential downpour delayed Sunday's race by more than two hours. But after a severe weather warning was issued at 4:12 p.m., the track didn't evacuate fans before NASCAR stopped the race and made Jeff Gordon the winner at 4:54 p.m. The fatal lightning strike occurred seven minutes later in a parking lot behind the grandstands.

While NASCAR is responsible for driver safety, track officials are responsible for spectator safety.

NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said its initial analysis showed Pocono had provided adequate warnings to its fans.

"The track acted appropriately, and we are aligned with them," Higdon said. "They have a very substantial emergency action plan that we review with them well in advance (of race weekends). … Ultimately, (the tracks) need to ensure the safety of the fans up to our expectations for them."

Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky said the track was in contact with NASCAR officials about the threatening weather but didn't know whether stopping the race to clear the stands was considered.

"The race is NASCAR's call," Igdalsky said. "That's always their call."

A rare occurrence

Pocono's Facebook page and social media networks were filled by fan outcry Monday and debate over whether fans were alerted properly. Igdalsky said the track was reviewing its records of how many announcements were made but conceded some fans didn't hear it. He said emptying the seats during a race was more difficult because fans weren't paying heed with their attention being diverted by multihued cars whizzing past and with the constant rumble of 800-horsepower engines.

"You could make 100 announcements, and they may only hear one," Igdalsky said.

Though there are many instances in which NASCAR stopped practice and qualifying to help evacuate the grandstands, it rarely happens during races. There was a Camping World Truck Series race at The Milwaukee Mile in 2008 in which people were ushered from their seats during a 25-minute red flag for bad weather.

It's not uncommon for tracks to cancel and postpone track activity, sometimes several hours or even days, in advance of race weekends. In September 2003, Dover canceled practice and qualifying Friday two days early because of Hurricane Isabel moving through the East Coast. In September 2008, Richmond International Raceway announced on a Friday afternoon that it was moving a Saturday night Sprint Cup race to Sunday afternoon because of a tropical-storm forecast.

Last year, Atlanta Motor Speedway moved its race from Sunday to Tuesday afternoon after a forecast of severe weather for Monday.

Atlanta President Ed Clark said evacuating his 99,000-seat grandstands during a race would be challenging.

"I'm not casting any blame here (but) as long as cars are going around track a lot of people aren't going to pay attention to whatever you tell them," Clark said. "I'm not trying to do NASCAR's job. Our job is to manage the facility and take care of the people in the facility. Theirs is to run the race.

"With some fans, if there's a car going around the track, they'll sit in a monsoon to watch it. That's why we have the greatest fans in the world."

Humpy Wheeler, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway for more than three decades before his 2008 retirement, said the track twice had evacuated its grandstands while races were running.

Wheeler said if he was 100% sure the track would be hit by a bad storm, he would lobby NASCAR to stop the event to help relocate fans beneath the grandstands in an orderly fashion.

"NASCAR would not usually put out the yellow or red flag until it actually started raining," Wheeler said. "I had a problem with this, because often lightning begins (before that). They had a tough call because of gas, tire and pit sequencing but I am a firm believer in stopping the race before rain hits if lightning is probable. If it is just rain, then it is a different story.

"My beliefs are grounded on 50 years of serious weather study and observation at tracks. I believe the track manager and NASCAR should mutually make the decision as to when to stop the event. And if lightning is highly probable, it should be done before the rain comes."

The National Weather Service agrees. It suggests that when lightning is within 15 miles of a venue, an evacuation of the facility should begin if it appears the thunderstorm is moving in. When lightning is detected within 8 miles of a venue, the National Weather Service suggests that "event officials suspend activities."

Higdon said NASCAR was conducting a thorough review to consider changes to its policies and race procedures, but that weather and fans' safety could factor into the decision to throw a red flag.

"It's definitely a joint process; we're sitting side by side with track officials (in the control tower)," Higdon said. "We're in close communication. As far as the race is concerned, that is ultimately our call. The facility and the stands, that is the responsibility of the (race) promoter.

"We're in lockstep; very rarely are we doing things independently. There will be certainly cases where an evacuation would have taken place at a track while a race might still be going on.

"But ultimately, we're the ones responsible for making decisions on a red flag like (Sunday)."

Klima said there have been 15 to 20 weather-related evacuations during race weekends at Dover Motorsports facilities (including the defunct Memphis Motorsports Park and Nashville Superspeedway) since he joined the company in 1996.

"In each scenario we worked with NASCAR and were able to convey the situation to them so we could get cars off the track or do things to make sure we tried to get everybody out of the grandstands," Klima said. "We have had a couple of instances where we have stopped competition for weather. Several years ago at Nashville on practice and qualifying, we had an F4 tornado on the ground headed right toward the track and ceased all activity."

'Something has to be done'

Tracks today use public address systems, video boards, social media networks and portable loudspeakers on police cars to help spread the word to fans. Daytona International Speedway implemented a text messaging system this season to push out weather updates to fans' cellphones during race weekends.

Pocono made announcements via Twitter and Facebook and its track PA, but Igdalsky wouldn't specify further details of its emergency notification plan.

Some fans who attended Sunday's race complained the track should have done more to notify them. Joan Alain of Ottawa, Canada, said her phone didn't have sufficient coverage for monitoring Twitter.

"There's got to be more warning put out," Alain said. "I think something has to be done. It's our responsibility as fans, but it's really hard when you're caught up in it, and if you don't have a warning that there's a severe, dangerous thunderstorm overhead, then people aren't going to react as they normally would."

Knowing where to send fans also can be a challenge in NASCAR, where racetracks don't have the capabilities to handle overflow crowds.

"One of the biggest concerns with a motor sports venue is lightning," Klima said. "The majority of motor sports venues are metal structures as opposed to an NFL stadium, and there's inherent differences in the construction."

Klima said evacuating a NASCAR crowd "depends on the scenario and amount of time. We're trying to get them to an area safer than where they are.

"That's very difficult in motor sports venues. In an NFL stadium, you can send them down to a mezzanine, and they can hold majority of people or in the concourse."

Igdalsky said Pocono advised fans to seek shelter in their cars.

At Texas Motor Speedway, President Eddie Gossage said the track advises fans to go underneath its 122,377-seat grandstands and also opens its concession and souvenir stands and 11 elevator tower stairwells to provide shelter. The track's grandstands are grounded to prevent fans from being hit beneath them.

"You can't lock the gate and not let them leave," Gossage said. "You have a lot of fans who decide, 'I'm going to the car,' or, 'I can beat it.' That's when you run into problems."

Gossage, who has been president of Texas since its 1997 opening, isn't sure that red-flagging a race necessarily is the best decision for evacuating the grandstands.

"There is a risk," he said. "What if you stop the race and advise people to take shelter and the storm goes around you? Is that the right thing to do? Whenever you do that, you risk putting people in position of danger because they might respond a little overly enthusiastically and have people trampled. It's dangerous to advise people to evacuate because some overreact.

"I don't know you can write a plan and say, 'This is what you do, and if lightning is so many miles away, you stop the race.' "

In instances when Dover Motorsports has tried to clear the grandstands, Klima said sometimes a handful of fans still refused to leave.

"Anytime you have these emergency situations, it's easy to go back and Monday morning quarterback," Klima said. "We can plan and put procedures in place but at the end of the day, people still have to take ownership for their actions.

"We can clear the grandstands and institute a severe weather plan, and people still can choose not to follow it."

Contributing: Dustin Long in Charlotte

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Report: Drought worsens in key farm states

ST. LOUIS – The latest U.S. drought map shows that excessively parched conditions continue to worsen in the Plains states that are key producers of corn and soybean crops.

Dry ears of corn and plant material lie in a field near Plumerville, Ark., last week. By Danny Johnston, AP

Dry ears of corn and plant material lie in a field near Plumerville, Ark., last week.

By Danny Johnston, AP

Dry ears of corn and plant material lie in a field near Plumerville, Ark., last week.

The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday shows that the amount of the contiguous U.S. mired in drought conditions dropped a little more than 1 percentage point, to 62.46 percent.

But the expanse still gripped by extreme or exceptional drought rose nearly 2 percentage points to 24.14 percent.

This is the highest percentage of the U.S. in extreme to exceptional drought since Drought Monitor records began in 2000.

The entire states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado are now in a drought.

The nation's biggest corn and soybean producer, Iowa, is still grappling with the drought. The amount of that state in extreme or exceptional drought more than doubled, rising from 30.74 percent last week to 69.14 percent as of Tuesday.

Overall, across the Midwest, reports of water-related impacts are ticking upward as mandatory restrictions continue to ramp upward around the region, the monitor reports.

"As the drought continues, this will undoubtedly become a more prevalent issue as the agricultural season passes and attention turns to next year's crops or herds," climatologist Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center wrote in the monitor.

Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Questions linger for NASCAR following lightning death

LONG POND, Pa. – A long line of cars and campers streamed out of the tunnel at Pocono Raceway past a large American flag that hung at half-mast Monday.

Jeff Gordon leads laps under caution Sunday at Pocono Raceway as a severe thunderstorm approaches. By Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images

Jeff Gordon leads laps under caution Sunday at Pocono Raceway as a severe thunderstorm approaches.

By Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images

Jeff Gordon leads laps under caution Sunday at Pocono Raceway as a severe thunderstorm approaches.

In the wake of the multiple lightning strikes after Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 that left a 41-year-old father of two dead and sent nine people to the hospital, many questions surfaced about how NASCAR and its tracks handle inclement weather and its impact on track activity.

Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark said his track hasn't had to evacuate its 99,000-seat grandstands during a race, but that it would be challenging.

"The tough part — I'm not casting any blame here — is as long as cars are going around (the) track a lot of people aren't going to pay attention to whatever you tell them," Clark told USA TODAY Sports. "That's the difficult thing is what do we do here if you're running the show. I'm not trying to do NASCAR's job. Our job is to manage the facility and take care of the people in the facility. Theirs is to run the race.

"Not knowing what occurred (Sunday), it's hard to make a comment other than the fact that some fans, if there's a car going around the track, they'll sit in a monsoon, and they're going to watch it. That's why we have the greatest fans in the world."

Clark said his 1.5-mile speedway has an emergency plan that is updated each year, and the track works with emergency officials from Henry County during races. An emergency management director is stationed in a control tower booth that is adjacent to NASCAR's control tower.

Clark said it's "hard to say" what would happen if the track decided during a race that there was the potential for unsafe conditions in its grandstands that might necessitate asking NASCAR for a stoppage.

"I've never been in that situation with them," Clark said. "I definitely would go talk to (NASCAR President) Mike Helton and say, 'Here's what we're being told and what to expect.' I'm sure his concern would be like mine, 'Let's take care of the folks that are here.' I'm sure (NASCAR has) some kind of procedure in place, I just don't know what it is because I'm not on that side of the fence."

NASCAR officials said they would comment Monday after Pocono Raceway officials held a 12:45 p.m. news conference to update the situation.

Michigan International Speedway President Roger Curtis said his track has senior staff members next to Helton and other NASCAR executives during the race.

"We've never been in that situation, but if we knew inclement weather is coming, we would talk to NASCAR," Curtis told USA TODAY Sports. "We're going to make a decision based on what's right for fans. We control the grandstands and campgrounds. (NASCAR) controls the on-track activity. Some fans are going to stick around no matter what if they think there's on-track activity.

"If that were to happen at Michigan, we would be in contact with them in the control tower and make a decision about the grandstands, but we would operate independently of (NASCAR) if need be. Hopefully that wouldn't need to happen, it would be simultaneous, but we're there together in the control tower."

Talladega Superspeedway canceled its Saturday activities in 2010 and Friday activities in 2011 because of tornado warnings. Track chairman Grand Lynch said "very few people left" among infield campers despite 17 consecutive hours of tornado warnings in 2010 and 11 straight hours in 2011.

"We send people out to tell fans, but getting them to leave is the hard part," Lynch told USA TODAY Sports. "It's their spot. It's where they like to camp. We even get officers out of the car and have them walk over and talk to them, and (the fans) give you, 'Oh, we've been flooded here before.' "

Lynch said the 2.66-mile track operates a weather command center on site during race weekends that has a staff of 40 including personnel from Talladega and NASCAR. Like Michigan and Atlanta, the track relies on its PA systems, social media networks and portable PA systems on police cars to help spread the word about inclement weather to fans. The tracks also use the SprintVision video boards to provide updates.

Daytona International Speedway has implemented a text messaging system this season to help alert fans with weather updates.

Daytona had a lightning strike on its property on its Sprint Cup race day on July 6, 2002, that sent six people to the hospital, and the track evacuated the grandstands prior to the Pepsi 400. Daytona President Joie Chitwood said there were no serious injuries.

The track also evacuated its grandstands during a practice day in July 2008 but hadn't done so during a race, though Chitwood indicated it would be possible.

"There's an unpredictability that makes it challenging based on the type of threat and where it's coming from and what you do afterward," Chitwood said. "Obviously, fan safety is paramount for us."

It's not uncommon for tracks to cancel and postpone track activity sometimes several hours or even days in advance of race weekends. In September 2003, Dover canceled practice and qualifying Friday two days early because of Hurricane Isabel moving through the East Coast.

Last year, Atlanta moved its race from Sunday night to Tuesday afternoon after a daylong forecast of severe weather for Monday.

"It was the right call for safety; the forecast was for rain and high winds, and we did have tornadoes in metro Atlanta," Clark said. "We'd do the same thing again, even though it upset a lot of fans. You have to make those tough decisions."

In a situation such as Sunday's, Clark said fans would be advised to go to their vehicles.

At Michigan, Curtis tells fans to go "where they think is appropriate. It depends, too, on the type of weather coming, as lightning is much different than tornado. People might be better served under the grandstands or certainly in their cars, if they can get to their cars."

Chitwood said Daytona would tell fans to seek immediate shelter or a place where they feel safe.

"The key is the fan goes to a place where they feel comfortable," he said. '"We don't provide a specific location."

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tips for best viewing of Perseid meteor shower's peak

Get out your thermos and sleeping bag, this year's Perseid meteor shower will peak Saturday night into Sunday morning. It's already "looking very good," in the words of Bill Cooke, who tracks meteors for NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

A Perseid meteor lights up as it streaks through the Earth's atmosphere, as seen and photographed by Ron Garan while aboard the International Space Station on August 13, 2011. NASA

A Perseid meteor lights up as it streaks through the Earth's atmosphere, as seen and photographed by Ron Garan while aboard the International Space Station on August 13, 2011.

NASA

A Perseid meteor lights up as it streaks through the Earth's atmosphere, as seen and photographed by Ron Garan while aboard the International Space Station on August 13, 2011.

"Last night we saw about 75 Perseid fireballs. I'm pretty stoked," he said.

The show will begin between 11 p.m. and midnight local time wherever you are on Saturday night and continue until dawn Sunday, says Alan MacRobert of Sky & Telescope magazine. "You might see as many one or two meteors a minute" at its height. The shower will gradually pick up over the course of the night and "continue nice and strong right up until dawn," says MacRobert.

Between 1:30 a.m. and 3 a.m., depending on where they live, sky watchers will also be treated to a three-for-one in the Eastern sky. First Jupiter, then the moon and then Venus will rise, says Conrad Jung, an astronomer with Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland.

If you're still up when dawn begins, "they'll make a nice diagonal line of bright things in the eastern sky," says MacRobert.

As for the weather, the best viewing areas to see the Perseids include Florida, most of Texas, southern New Mexico, the Ohio Valley south to Tennessee, northern Alabama, northern Mississippi, the northern Rockies, and the West Coast, according to the Weather Channel.

Spots where clouds are possible include much of the East, the Upper Midwest, the central Rockies and the Desert Southwest.

The Perseid meteors appear to fall from the constellation Perseus, but are actually leftover debris from comet Swift-Tuttle. They recur each year when Earth passes through the comet's debris trail. Though Saturday is the peak night, the Earth actually started traveling through the debris in late July and won't leave it behind until early August. It's those tiny pea-and sand-sized remnants that cause the shower.

"We only see them when they strike the Earth's upper atmosphere in the last few seconds of their existence, when they blaze up and burn out," says MacRobert.

The best way to observe the Perseids, or any meteor shower, is to find a dark place outside with as little light pollution as possible. Give your eyes at least 10 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Look straight up and be patient. "Shower is really kind of a misnomer," says Chabot's Jung. The falling stars, as they're sometimes called, tend to come more in groups.

Meteor watching can be cold, especially as the night progresses. Bundle up, which is also helpful against mosquitoes: "A sleeping bag makes excellent armor," says MacRobert.

Jung suggests a big thermos of hot chocolate or coffee and "some energetic friends." But don't drink alcohol, as astronomers say it impairs night vision.

NASA will be holding a live online chat during the shower, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Cooke and his team from the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center will be online to answer questions. There will also be a live video feed, for those faced with overcast weather that night.

On the Web: www.nasa.gov/connect/chat/perseids_2012.html

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USDA revises corn, soybean crop estimates dramatically lower

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave its assessment of the historic drought Friday, forecasting national corn production at 10.8 billion bushels, down 13% from 2011 and the lowest production since 2006.

A combine harvests corn near Altheimer, Ark., in this July 16, 2012 photo. By Danny Johnston, AP

A combine harvests corn near Altheimer, Ark., in this July 16, 2012 photo.

By Danny Johnston, AP

A combine harvests corn near Altheimer, Ark., in this July 16, 2012 photo.

The report is the USDA's first official assessment of the impact of the drought that has hit the Corn Belt and is considered to be the worst since 1956.

Analysts knew lower projections were coming but "this is a substantial drop. Wow," says Harry Kaiser, head of the Food and Agricultural Economics program at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The government report said corn prices, which already have reached record levels above $8 per bushel in the last month, could go as high as $8.90 per bushel, well above $6.40 per bushel projected in July and $4.80 per bushel projected in April at planting time.

On the Chicago Board of Trade, corn futures sold for $8.43 a bushel shortly after the report was issued, as traders already had factored lower production into their numbers.

About 40% of the U.S. corn crop is used to make ethanol, under federal mandate. Another 40% is used as animal feed, both here and abroad. The remaining 20% is eaten in mostly processed foods in the United States such as high-fructose corn syrup and items like corn flakes.

U.S. food prices are predicted to increase between 3% and 4% because of the sky-high corn prices, and will probably go higher with the new, lower corn numbers. But overall high prices don't hit consumers too hard because so little of what we pay at the supermarket is actually for food. The corn in a box of corn flakes is worth about 7 to 8 cents. We pay for processing, transportation.

The USDA has warned that the 2.5% to 3% increase in food prices this year will widen to as much as 5% next year.

Based on conditions as of Aug. 1, yields are expected to average 123.4 bushels per acre, down 23.8 bushels from 2011. If realized, this will be the lowest average yield since 1995.

U.S. corn production for 2012-13 is forecast at 10.8 billion bushels, the lowest since 2006-07. Surplus corn stocks going past the upcoming harvest into 2013 are projected at 650 million bushels, 533 million lower, down from 1.18 billion bushels forecast a month ago and the smallest carryout since 1995-96.

The USDA said global corn ending stocks were 123.33 million metric tons (1 ton equals 39 bushels) vs. 134.09 metric tons forecast by the USDA last month.

The ending stocks figure, a key determinant of corn prices, was "about what the trade had been expecting at 650 million bushels," said Des Moines commodity broker Tomm Pfitzenmaier.

By contrast, at the time of the last major drought in 1988, the nation's surplus stocks of corn stood at more than 4 billion bushels.

While the USDA yield and production forecasts are drastic, they aren't the most steep. At least two private forecasters, Doane Agricultural Services and Farm Futures Magazine, have pegged the U.S. or state corn yields below 120 bushels per acre.

The USDA said total corn use is projected 1.5 billion bushels lower and at 11.2 billion would be a six-year low. The biggest reduction again this month is for feed and residual disappearance, projected down 725 million bushels.

The USDA said feed grain supplies will be 2.2 billion bushels lower than earlier projections, as livestock producers reduce their herds in the face of higher feed costs. That reduction of herds, in turn, is expected to drive up meat prices next year.

The USDA predicts a 400 million bushel reduction in the demand for ethanol, which now consumes almost 40% of the U.S. corn crop.

Soybeans will suffer somewhat less drastically, the USDA said, with production forecast at 2.69 billion bushels, down 12% from last year.

Based on Aug. 1 conditions, yields are expected to average 36.1 bushels per acre, down 5.4 bushels from last year. If realized, the average yield will be the lowest since 2003.

The impact of high corn prices already has made itself felt around the world. On Thursday, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said that world food prices soared 6% in July, ending a streak of three consecutive months of declines, following a sharp increase in grain and sugar prices.

The rising prices for corn will have an enormous impact on people in developing countries, where people spend 30% to 40% of their income on food. "They're the ones that are hardest hit," and hunger will rise, says Colin Carter, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California-Davis.

The drought also has entered into the debates in Congress over the new Farm Bill, which would replace the current version, which expires Sept. 30. Proponents of emergency measures to help livestock producers, who unlike their crop-producing brethren aren't insured against losses, have argued for emergency assistance.

Contributing: Dan Piller also reports for The Des Moines Register

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Tropical Storm Ernesto kills 2 in Mexico

VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) —Tropical Storm Ernesto lost strength as it moved inland early Friday, though forecasters warned it could still dump dangerous rains in the mountains of Mexico's flood-prone southern Gulf region.

A man stands on a damaged pier in Mahahual, Mexico, after the passage of Ernesto on Wednesday. By Jose Dominguez, AFP/Getty Images

A man stands on a damaged pier in Mahahual, Mexico, after the passage of Ernesto on Wednesday.

By Jose Dominguez, AFP/Getty Images

A man stands on a damaged pier in Mahahual, Mexico, after the passage of Ernesto on Wednesday.

In Tabasco state, two fishermen drowned when the stormed passed through the area Thursday, Gov. Andres Granier told reporters.

Granier said the storm's strong winds ripped rooftops from several homes but residents refused to evacuate, fearing their possessions might be stolen. "People have chosen to stay in their homes and we are helping them," he said.

Ernesto came ashore near the waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company in the far southern Gulf of Mexico. The government closed its largest Gulf coast port, Veracruz, and the smaller ports of Alvarado and Coatzacoalcos.

Coatzacoalcos, a major oil port, got seven inches (177 millimeters) of rain in the 24 hours before Ernesto's center passed just a few miles (kilometers) away, according to Mexico's weather service. San Pedro in the neighboring state of Tabasco had seen more than 10 inches (273 millimeters).

About 2,000 army and navy personnel were on standby to head to inland mountains to help in rescue work if needed, said Noemi Guzman, Veracruz state civil defense director. Guzman said no flooding had been reported at any of the state's many rivers.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto's sustained winds had declined to 40 mph (65 kph) by late Thursday, just above the minimum 39 mph to be considered a tropical storm. It said the storm would continue weakening through the night and should dissipate by midday Friday, although it warned that heavy rains could continue into Friday night.

Ernesto was a weak hurricane when it made its first landfall late Tuesday near the cruise ship port of Mahahual in Yucatan, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula and then spun into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.

Late Thursday, the storm was centered about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southwest of the port city of Veracruz, moving to the west at 14 mph (22 kph).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto still had the potential to cause flooding and could produce rainfalls of up to 15 inches in some parts of the mountainous areas of Veracruz, Tabasco, Puebla and Oaxaca states before dissipating.

There were no reports of major flooding in Veracruz state and there have been only minor landslides on some roads, said Raul Zarrabal, the state's communications secretary.

A new tropical depression formed in the Atlantic on Thursday far from land. It was the seventh tropical depression to form in the Atlantic and forecasters said it could strengthen into a tropical storm Friday as it took a path toward the Caribbean. Late Thursday, it had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) and was 1,045 miles (1,680 kilometers) east of the Windward Islands.

The Atlantic hurricane season got off to an early start and will likely stay busy, producing a few more storms than originally predicted, U.S. forecasters said Thursday.

Forecasters said warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures and wind patterns that favor storm formation mean chances are higher for an above-normal season. However, that is tempered with the expected development of an El Nino weather pattern over the Pacific that may suppress storms later in the season.

In the Pacific, Gilma weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm and was not seen as a threat to land. It was about 695 miles (1,115 kilometers) west-southwest of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, with maximum sustained winds near 70 mph (110 kph).

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Little relief from the heat after hottest July ever

Leaving the Dust Bowl in the dust, July was the hottest month in U.S. history, and August promises little relief.

Leniel Fields of K&K Maintenance wipes his face in the heat as he maintains the grounds at the Franklin School Apartments near downtown St. Louis on July 23. St. Louis endured its hottest month on record in July, as did the nation as a whole. By Erik M. Lunsford, AP

Leniel Fields of K&K Maintenance wipes his face in the heat as he maintains the grounds at the Franklin School Apartments near downtown St. Louis on July 23. St. Louis endured its hottest month on record in July, as did the nation as a whole.

By Erik M. Lunsford, AP

Leniel Fields of K&K Maintenance wipes his face in the heat as he maintains the grounds at the Franklin School Apartments near downtown St. Louis on July 23. St. Louis endured its hottest month on record in July, as did the nation as a whole.

July's average temperature for the contiguous USA was 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit, eclipsing the record set during the heart of the Dust Bowl in 1936, federal scientists announced Wednesday.

"The extent of the heat this year was much more widespread than in July 1936," says Jake Crouch of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

After a brief cooling trend and occasional showers this week in the central USA, "the heat will try to make a big comeback next week," says AccuWeather senior meteorologist Jack Boston.

Some drought relief is possible in the fall in the central and southern Plains, but warm, dry weather should continue in the upper Midwest and around the Great Lakes, he says.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the average July temperature was 3.3 degrees above the 20th-century average and the hottest July and hottest month in records dating to 1895. The previous warmest month was July 1936 (77.4 degrees ).

This July and July 1936 featured a large ridge of high pressure over the center of the country that kept temperatures sizzling, Crouch says. The current high-pressure ridge, which prevents clouds and rain from forming, has been in place since March.

The worst July heat was in the Midwest, the Plains and along the Eastern Seaboard. In all, 44 states had above-average temperatures in July, although only Virginia saw its hottest July.

The heat has gone hand-in-hand with a relentless drought now encompassing almost 64% of the contiguous states, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website.

The January-July period was also the warmest first seven months of any year for the USA, NOAA says. The national temperature of 56.4 degrees was 4.3 above the long-term average. Most of the contiguous USA had record and near-record warmth for the seven months, except the Pacific Northwest, which was near average.

The heat has not created corresponding record demands on the power grid. Power company officials and energy analysts such as Jim Owen of the Edison Electric Institute, which follows electrical usage for private customers, say years of conservation practices — including utilities giving customers incentives to shut off air conditioning during peak demand — have paid off.

The U.S. power grid has been largely blackout-free through the heat wave, in contrast to widespread outages in India.

Globally, the weather has been warmer than average this year but not record hot. For instance, the South Pole's average July temperature of 76 degrees below zero was about average. On July 15, the low there hit a nippy -104 degrees.

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Drought, dry summer mean more encounters with hungry bears

OLD FORGE, N.Y. – With their normal summer diet of greens and berries shriveled by summer heat or drought in many spots nationwide, hungry bears are rummaging through garbage, ripping through screens and crawling into cars in search of sustenance.

In this May 9 photo provided by Donna Wiltsie, a bear searches a porch for food in Catskill, N.Y. Handout via AP

In this May 9 photo provided by Donna Wiltsie, a bear searches a porch for food in Catskill, N.Y.

Handout via AP

In this May 9 photo provided by Donna Wiltsie, a bear searches a porch for food in Catskill, N.Y.

In the Adirondack Mountain village of Old Forge in northern New York state, a black bear clawed through the wall of a candy store on Main Street last week; another one locked itself in a minivan and shredded the interior in a frantic struggle to escape, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"We've been here 17 years and never had a problem with bears," said Roslyn Starer, who runs the Candy Cottage in Old Forge with her son, Larry. "But it's been so dry the normal foods in the woods just aren't growing. So they're coming into town."

Starer came to the shop one morning to find a bear had ripped a big hole in the wall. "If it had gone much further it would have gotten into the shop, and the damage would have been devastating," she said.

This summer's bear troubles aren't isolated to New York. In eastern Kentucky, the U.S. Forest Service closed two campgrounds for a weekend at the end of July because of bears raiding picnic baskets and coolers. Biologists blamed the drought-related berry shortage.

In Colorado, where drought has dried up the chokecherries and serviceberries bears rely on, a bear and three cubs broke into more than a dozen cars in Aspen looking for food in June.

A surveillance camera in a candy store in Estes Park, Colo., showed a bear making seven trips inside for candy in 15 minutes. A bear that broke into occupied homes there last month was put down because it posed a danger to people, one official said, noting the drought has made the intelligent animals even more resourceful in finding food.

Weather-related bear problems are nothing new, as natural food supplies vary from year to year depending on rainfall and other factors. But this summer has been a particularly busy one, wildlife biologists in New York say.

"This has been an interesting year for bears, especially in the Catskills," said Jeremy Hurst, a big game biologist with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, referring to the mountain range north of New York City. "In multiple communities, bears have gotten into people's homes, in some cases even when people were at home. Half a dozen to a dozen bears have been euthanized. More have been trapped and relocated."

While property has been damaged by foraging bears, no human injuries have been reported in New York this year.

In the Catskills last month, there were three times as many serious bear issues such as home and vehicle break-ins as there were in the same period last year, Hurst said.

"Typically, complaints of bear damage peak in late spring, but this year, the frequency of bear complaints picked up strongly with the drought in July," he said.

The Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University reported Tuesday that so far, 2012 has been the hottest year on record for the 12-state region. While conditions in the Northeast weren't as dry as some parts of the country, there has been moderate drought in parts of upstate New York.

Bears typically turn to hard foods such as acorns and beechnuts in the fall to bulk up for winter. Paul Curtis, a wildlife specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension and associate professor at Cornell University, said a cold snap in April that damaged a lot of fruit tree buds also may have affected acorns and other wild nuts. That could mean trouble for corn farmers, with bears fattening up in their fields, Curtis said.

In Vermont, Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Forrest Hammond said food scarcity due to the dry summer was contributing to bear complaints. The department has recommended that farmers bring in their corn crops as soon as possible.

"The farmers are going to have a tougher time with bears," Hammond said.

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