nat 84

The Heat Is On
June 11, 2000 2:15 pm EST

In New York, A Run On Air Conditioners

NEW YORK AND MIAMI (CBS News) - The scorching heat across the nation's northeast has energy officials warning of brownouts and Florida farmers fighting to save their crops from drought and fire.

Along Florida's Gulf Coast this is the driest spring since at least 1915, when records were first kept. Farmers in the northern part of the state have lost $200 million worth of crops, CBS News Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman reports.

It is so dry in some parts that soil is literally collapsing under houses.

Some areas are short twenty inches of rain, and what isn't burning is baking. For farmers the only escape is irrigation, but local water companies are pumping at beyond capacity to keep up with demand and have enacted restrictions on use.

"The rows next to the water are doing fairly well. But then a few rows over it's just so dry," says Tommy Lee, a farmer.

CBS News Correspondent Jacqueline Adams reports that with the official start of summer still 10 days away, the nation's chief energy official is warning there may not be enough electricity to satisfy everyone's power needs.

"You've got everybody using more telephones, more fuel cells, more faxes, more technology," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. "The demand is huge, but the electricity grid is not growing."

With millions of fans and air conditioners drawing power, Richardson says several regions of the country are especially vulnerable to heat-related brownouts: parts of the northeast, upper-Midwest, California and the southwest.

And almost all of those areas had temperatures in the 90s Saturdays.

"What we are trying to do is not panic people, but prepare them for the eventuality of brownouts and blackouts," said Richardson.

In steamy New York, folks scurried to buy new air conditioners.

"Today's supposed to be 100 and that's usually the bellmark for it going off-the-wall crazy here," said the manager of a P.C. Richards appliance store.

Heat-related power outages all but shut down Chicago's business district last summer, infuriating that city's mayor.

"You are putting people in jeopardy," Richard Daley scolded. "Health and safety—that is the issue."

His rage got results. Since last year, the local power company has spent $800 million replacing antiquated power lines.

Commonwealth Edison has also vowed to send a check to any of its 3.4 million customers whose power is out for 8 hours or more because of the heat.

"We can't guarantee that there won't be outages but if there are, they will be less frequent," said Don Kirchoffner of Commonwealth Edison.

In drought-ravaged Florida, the problem isn't power but precipitation.

La Nina, the big pool of cool water over the Pacific, means less evaporation, a weaker jet stream and a lot less rain in places like the southeast.

Meteorologist Jim Lushine of the National Weather Service says salvation may come from the most unlikely of allies—the fierce tropical storms that Florida usually dreads.

"One or a series of tropical systems going across that area certainly would help a lot," says Lushine. "A good harmless hurricane would very much help."

It's an odd thing to wish for, but in the southeast, those hurricanes can't come soon enough.

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