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January 29, 2013

Caddo County struggles against drought

BINGER — 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.

In fact, Caddo County has been declared a federal disaster area nine times since 2007, making it one of the nation’s most ill-fated locations. But even here, farmers and ranchers say, no one has endured anything as crippling as the ongoing drought, which has dried out ponds, withered crops in the field and decimated the water table.

“It makes you become humble,” said Charlie Opitz, who began his farming career selling peanut seeds in 1959 and grew 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 the perils of bad weather. Their state practically blew away during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and they live in the heart of tornado alley — a wide corridor in the central United States where twisters are common.

Caddo County has endured all that and more. Its recent history reads like a storm chaser’s logbook or some punishment inflicted by a vengeful god.

The area was hit by no fewer than five federal disasters in 2007 alone, including ice storms, violent winds, tornadoes and flooding. Then the county suffered a disaster each year for the next four, including more tornadoes and flooding in 2008, a blizzard in 2009, another ice storm in 2010 and tornadoes and flooding again in 2011.

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.

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