ATLANTA - For the first time in more than 100 years, much of the Southeastern United States has reached the most severe category of drought, climatologists said yesterday, citing an emergency so serious that some cities are just months away from running out of water.
In North Carolina, Governor Michael F. Easley asked residents yesterday to stop using water for any purpose "not essential to public health and safety." He warned that he would soon have to declare a state of emergency if voluntary efforts fell short.
"Now I don't want to have to use these powers," Easley said at a meeting of mayors and other city officials. "As leaders of your communities, you know what works best at the local level. I am asking for your help."
Officials in the central North Carolina town of Siler City estimate that without rain, they are 80 days from draining the Lower Rocky River Reservoir, which supplies water for the town's 8,200 people.
In the Atlanta metropolitan area, which has more than 4 million people, worst-case scenarios show that the city's sole source of water, Lake Lanier, could be drained dry in 90 to 121 days.
The hard numbers have shocked the Southeast into action, even as many people wondered why things had seemed to get so bad so quickly.
Last week, Mayor Charles L. Turner of Siler City declared a water shortage emergency and ordered each "household, business and industry" to reduce water usage by 50 percent. Penalties for not complying range from stiff fines to the termination of water service.
"It's really alarming," said Janice Terry, co-owner of the Best Foods cafeteria in Siler City. To curtail water use, Best Foods has swapped its dishes for paper plates and foam cups.
Most controversially, it has stopped offering tap water to customers, selling them 69-cent bottles of water instead. "We've had people walk out," Terry said. "They get mad when they can't get a free glass of water."
For the better part of 18 months, cloudless blue skies and high temperatures have shriveled crops and bronzed lawns from North Carolina to Alabama, quietly creating what David E. Stooksbury, the state climatologist of Georgia, has dubbed "the Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters," a reference to that comedian's repeated lament that he got "no respect."
"People pay attention to hurricanes," Stooksbury said. "They pay attention to tornadoes and earthquakes. But a drought will sneak up on you."
The situation has gotten so bad that by all of Stooksbury's measures - the percentage of moisture in the soil, the flow rate of rivers, inches of rain - this drought has broken every record in Georgia's history.
Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, at a news conference last week, begged people in her city to conserve water. "Please, please, please do not use water unnecessarily," Franklin said.
Others wondered why the calls to conserve are so late in coming. "I think there's been an ostrich-head-in-the-sand syndrome that has been growing," said Mark Crisp, an Atlanta-based consultant with the engineering firm C.H. Guernsey.
Crisp is among analysts who have warned for years that Atlanta is asking too much of Lake Lanier, a situation quickly being compounded by an absence of rain.
Many had hoped that hurricane season, as it has in the past, would bring several soaking storms to the Southeast to replenish reservoirs that are at or near all-time lows.
But the longed-for rains never materialized, and now in October, traditionally the driest month, significant rainfall remains out of the picture.
"We're in a stressful situation now," Crisp said, "but come next spring, if we don't have substantial rainfall this winter, these reservoirs are not going to refill."