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KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - The severe drought ravaging Texas and other parts of the U.S. Southwest is getting worse, weather experts said Thursday, and little respite is in sight for farmers, ranchers and others whose livelihoods and properties are suffering.
The latest report from a consortium of national climate experts dubbed the Drought Monitor said while Texas remained the epicenter for devastation, "exceptional drought," which is the worst category, expanded not only there but through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Louisiana.
In March, rainfall totals were the lowest ever for Texas, and in April they were the fifth driest on record, according to state climatology data. The seven months from October through April marked the driest seven consecutive months on record for Texas going back to 1895, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
"Whether this ends up being a historical drought or no worse than the droughts of 2005-6 and 2008-9 depends on how long it lasts, but a lot has to go right with the weather quickly," said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist.
The lack of moisture, coupled with high temperatures and wind, fueled wildfires that so far have ravaged 2.2 million acres and destroyed more than 1,100 buildings in Texas. Farmers are giving up on wheat fields, and ranchers are struggling to keep cattle fed and watered.
The drought in the Southwest and Southern Plains comes even as persistent rains and flooding are plaguing parts of the U.S. Midwest and lower Mississippi Valley.
"We have all this flooding in the East and the Mississippi Valley, and drought in the South," said climatologist Mark Svoboda. "That is the way Mother Nature seems to be dealing things right now, in the extremes."
Excessive rainfall has slowed the planting of corn in key growing areas and could become a threat for other key crops, including soybeans. Indeed, only 13 percent of corn was planted by May 1, well behind the average pace of 40 percent.
Of more immediate concern, however, is the new U.S. winter wheat crop, which is primarily grown in the Plains states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
The drought has caused widespread abandonment of withering wheat in those states, and production estimates have dropped in half in Oklahoma and Texas.
According to data issued Thursday by the Drought Monitor, 94 percent of Texas was suffering severe drought or worse, with exceptional drought rising to 25.96 percent for the Lone Star State from 17.16 percent.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been urging state residents to pray for rain, and asked the federal government to declare Texas in a state of emergency and eligible for disaster aid.
Svoboda said higher-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal precipitation is forecast through July for Texas and southern Louisiana. The only hope is that a sudden storm system develops that is not yet on the radar screen.
"Right now it doesn't look very good as we head into the summer months," said Svoboda.
Editing by John Picinich and Cynthia Osterman