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After disasters, county struggles against drought

BINGER, Okla. -- In the gently rolling hills of Oklahoma ranch country is a place that has seen more than its share of destructive weather -- tornadoes, ice storms and floods year after year, for half of the last decade.

Caddo County has been declared a federal disaster area nine times since 2007. But even here, farmers and ranchers say, no one has endured anything as crippling as the drought, with ponds dried out, crops withered and the water table decimated.

"It makes you become humble," said Charlie Opitz, who began by selling peanut seeds in 1959 and expanded his operation to more than 2,500 acres near the small town of Binger, about 60 miles west of Oklahoma City. "You realize there's something out there much greater than you are."

Oklahomans know better than most Americans about bad weather. Their state practically blew away during the 1930s Dust Bowl, and they live in the heart of tornado alley.

Caddo County's recent history reads like a storm chaser's logbook or some punishment inflicted by a vengeful god.

There were five federal disasters in 2007 alone, including ice storms, tornadoes and flooding. Then a disaster hit the county each year for the next four: more tornadoes and flooding in 2008, a blizzard in 2009, an ice storm in 2010 and tornadoes and flooding again in 2011.

By comparison, during the entire decade of the 1990s the county suffered only five federal disasters.

Now comes the drought, a ceaseless dry spell that began last summer and could persist through much of 2013.

Rainfall totals for 2012 were more than 10 inches below normal, and the two-year total of 51 inches is the fourth-lowest since record-keeping began in 1895, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

The entire county remains locked in extreme drought, says the U.S. Drought Monitor, a government service.

Karen Krehbiel, who raises sheep and grows wheat and milo near Hinton, said her utility expenses more than doubled from about $15,000 in 2010 to $33,000 in 2012, mostly because of increased costs to irrigate parched fields. Sheep that traditionally would graze on pasture land must be fed hay, a more expensive operation.

"Because it was so hot and dry, even running irrigation all day you couldn't produce enough water," said Krehbiel, who had to let 30 acres of alfalfa die in the field because she couldn't afford to irrigate it.

A pond on her property hasn't returned to normal since the 2007 flood burst a dam and sent it gushing downstream. An apple, pear and peach orchard near her in-law's home bears the scars of an ice storm that took out dozens of trees.

Opitz said much of the land that he and his sons work is still recovering from the 2007 flood that sent the nearby Sugar Creek out of its banks.

"This whole valley was under water, from hill to hill," said Opitz, whose grandfather started a grain elevator in Binger in 1903. The family had to buy a bulldozer to repair ponds that were washed away. Their crop fields still have deep gullies carved out by the flooding.

If the drought doesn't break soon, valuable grazing grass could die. "It will put several producers out of business," Opitz said. "That's not just speculation. That's a fact."

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