Okla. Congressman says disaster declaration coming

Oklahoma City_The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to issue a federal disaster declaration for 14 drought-stricken counties in western Oklahoma, Congressman Frank Lucas announced.

The federal agency will confirm nine counties as primary disaster areas, with another five counties declared contiguous disaster areas, Lucas said Thursday.

"These counties in Oklahoma are suffering through one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl," Lucas said. "Farmers and ranchers are the backbone of our American economy and USDA has made the right decision to assist them by granting these designations.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer signed the disaster declarations on Wednesday, but the designations still must be approved by the Office of Congressional Relations before it is officially released, said Latawnya Dia, a spokeswoman for the Farm Service Agency in Washington, D.C.

"It's already in the pipe to be cleared. It's just a matter of when," Dia said.

A federal disaster declaration will make farmers and ranchers eligible for low-interest emergency loans and provide tax breaks to ranchers forced to sell livestock early because of drought conditions.

Farmers and ranchers in contiguous counties who qualify also can receive aid, Dia said.

The counties that qualify for primary disaster designation are Cimarron, Texas, Beaver, Harper, Woodward, Ellis, Roger Mills, Dewey and Woods. Those given contiguous disaster designation are Alfalfa, Beckham, Blaine, Custer and Major counties.

"There is no complete bailout for people who are in a disaster situation," said state Rep. Jeff Hickman, a western Oklahoma farmer whose district includes portions of Alfalfa, Grant, Major, Woods and Woodward counties.

"This is appreciated and it's needed, but the thing everyone is praying for is rain. That's the only silver bullet."

Rainfall levels across the Oklahoma Panhandle and much of western Oklahoma are well below normal, and soil tests have shown no moisture 4 inches into the ground in some areas. The recent wheat harvest was below normal, and little grass has grown in recent months.

On Wednesday, Gov. Brad Henry made a rare visit to the sparsely populated Panhandle to get a firsthand look at the devastation.

"Farmers are coping with failing crops. Ranchers are forced to sell off cattle because there is no grass for grazing. There are serious and significant consequences to this drought," the governor said.

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