To really feel this drought, just hit the road

The brown grass in front of the 1920 bungalow I moved into in Columbia, Mo., needs some serious watering.(Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media)

It was a scorcher when my mom and I pulled into Columbia, Mo., in my black Saturn coupe last week. The 99-degree air outside the car, which was packed to the gills with my belongings, felt hot and dry. There was no breeze. The sun was beating down overhead. The treeless lawn in front of the bungalow I was moving into looked like it needed some serious watering. My landlord, a Columbia native about my mom’s age, agreed, saying usually this time of year it was so lush he had to mow it every week.

“This is the driest and hottest I’ve ever seen it,” he said, adding that while Missouri summers are always hot, it was rare to see so many days reaching the triple-digits.

I’m not sure I’m the best at dealing with extreme temperatures although I have experienced some. I grew up in Charlottesville, Va., which has moderate winters and steamy, humid summers. The best way to cool off is to sit quietly on a screened-in porch sipping a cold drink. I’ve also spent more than a decade in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the city’s densely packed, concrete landscape make a hot summer feel even hotter. Luckily, a dip in the ocean is only a few stops away on the Long Island Railroad.

But neither place on the East Coast can compare to the heat I’ve felt in my first week in the Midwest. This past month was Missouri’s hottest July since 1980, according to the Missouri Climate Center. It tied with 1954 for the fifth hottest July on record. The days feel even hotter due to the extreme paucity of rain. Missouri got an average of just 1.61 inches last month -- 2.63 less than the monthly norm. That makes this July the seventh driest on record in Missouri, and the driest July since 1970.

When I accepted the reporting job at Harvest Public Media in early June, the drought had not yet hit its stride. But since moving here from New York, it has, according to the few farmers I’ve had the chance to talk with in my week here. The weather through the end of July put the state on the map for having the worst corn, soybean and pasture conditions in the United States, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. 

Anyone who wants to see firsthand what this weather has done to the land need simply hit the road, as my mom and I did during our 14-hour drive west from Charlottesville, Va. The color palate of the landscape around us changed from emerald green to a dusty gold.

Photo 1: Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn - Although it’s been a hot summer in New York City, the trees are doing just fine.

Photo 2: Mom’s backyard in Charlottesville, Va. - After we left the lush hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, we saw horses in Kentucky fields along 64 West grazing in the shade of trees.

Photo 3: Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana - Things were still looking greenish at a monastery where we stopped for lunch in St. Meinrad, Ind. although the grass had brown patches here and there. “My son tells me it’s worse in Kansas City,” a woman who packed up our turkey and tuna sandwiches told us.

Photo 4: Corn along I-64 W in Illinois - Things did get worse. When we got to Illinois, the stalks of corn where they had not been irrigated began to look more golden, dried up and shriveled. The wetlands surrounding a rest area where we stopped had dried up.

Photo 5: Corn along I-70 in Columbia, Mo. - The corn down the road in Columbia looked even drier.

Photo 6: A shot from the MKT-Katy trail in Rocheport, Mo. - In Rocheport, Mo., some tributaries like this one to the Missouri River had also gone dry.

Photo 7: Home in Benton-Stephens - The brown grass in front of the 1920 bungalow I moved into in Benton-Stephens, Columbia needs some serious watering.