Suggesting that Texans pray for rain, Gov. George W. Bush declared an emergency in two-thirds of the state Thursday amid worries that the unusually dry winter may give way to a summertime drought more ruinous than last year's.
The emergency declaration in 167 of the state's 254 counties makes Texas eligible for federal aid, which Bush said is needed to pay for the movement of firefighting equipment to areas that may soon need it. "This adds up to a drought that could be as bad or worse than the devastation we experienced last year," he said.
In west Texas, parched by drought and desperation, farmers left the field to follow Bush's advice and search for divine intervention, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod.
"We cry out to you tonight: Lord, send rain. Send rain," Pastor Gary Kirksey said as he led his congregation in prayer.
Two droughts in three years have left much of Texas in the dust. Last year, the state's economy took an $8 billion hit from stunted crops and hungry herds. The bone-dry weather in 1998 also turned the Texas landscape into a tinderbox, sparking more than 10,000 wildfires.
Just two months from cotton planting season, the ground remains dry, the rain is scarce, and farmers like Ronnie Thornton figure prayer is all that he has left. "Ya gotta depend on the man upstairs," Thornton says. "If you don't get down on your knees, you don't have much."
The state has had far below-normal rainfall since the first of the year, according to Carl Anderson, agricultural extension economist at Texas A&M University. Last year, the drought began in early March.
"Agriculture is truly in peril," said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs. "They simply cannot make it when you have drought coupled with low and falling prices. I hope that weather forecasts for continued dry and warm weather in Texas are proven wrong."
Texans are praying for more than rain. They'd like to see some cold as well. Each year, growers hope for a west Texas freeze to kill off cotton's number one threat -- the boll weevil. This mild winter is the seventh in a row.
There is a reported tenfold increase in the boll weevil population, a pest that can wipe out half a farmer's crop. But in west Texas, drought still trumps weevil when dealing in plagues. "If we don't have the rain, as dry as it is now, we don't have to worry about anything else, cause it's not going to happen. We're not going to raise a crop," Thornton said.
Getting out is a painful thought for Thornton, who prefers to picture bountiful harvests. These days, that requires a good imagination or plenty of home movies from a generation ago. "The saying that goes with farmers: there's always next year, always next year. If things don't change, there's not going to be a next year. It's going to be a last year," Thornton said.
Memories can sustain the soul, but they can't pay the bills. The state is spendin$167,000 a week to position firefighting equipment. Last year, during the height of the drought, Texas spent $5 million a week, which included the cost of bringing in emergency equipment and personnel from outside the state.