Drought’s Effect Felt Beyond Crops

By Denise Johnson | August 27, 2012

This season’s abnormally hot weather has caused dry conditions in nearly every state, from Alaska to extreme drought in Hawaii. According to the USDA, more than half of all counties in the U.S. have been designated disaster areas in 2012, mainly due to the drought.

While people, crops and livestock have been hit hard, some properties are also cracking under the heat.

The National Crop Insurance Services recently indicated that crop insurers have paid out $822 million in losses so far this year. The nation’s crop insurance program currently insures 264 million acres, 1.14 million policies, and $110 billion worth of liability on about 500,000 farms.

In addition to shriveling corn and soy crops, the drought has affected 66 percent of the nation’s hay acreage and approximately 73 percent of the nation’s cattle acreage, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Reuters recently reported that some farmers who have amped up their insurance coverage may be giving up on their crops early rather than to trying to save them.

But crops and livestock are not the only victims of the drought.

The drought is also taking a toll on buildings. Homes in Iowa and Missouri are showing cracks in their foundations caused by the drought.

The Des Moines Register reported the drought caused the ground surrounding homes to pull away from their foundations, leading to widening cracks in walls, sticking windows and doors and nails popping.

Fixing a foundation isn’t cheap. Firms say the average repair cost is running in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, while some have even exceeded $30,000 – costs that homeowner insurance policies seldom cover.

Tom Henderson, marketing director of Midwest Basement Systems, says structural problems tend to worsen under drought conditions as severe as those seen this year.

According to Michael Goldschmidt, a University of Missouri housing and environmental specialist, extended dry periods can cause shifting or cracking in home’s foundation.

Goldschmidt said that when soil is extremely wet, it expands and lifts the foundation. When the soil becomes extremely dry it contracts and the foundation sinks. Missouri’s clay soil can absorb a lot of water that causes it to expand; then when the water evaporates, the clay soil shrinks forming cracks that can extend many feet deep and damage foundations, he said.

Clay soil, also known as expansive soil, is found in every state.

“Shifting ground can crack foundations, especially during drought conditions. This damage often shows up as cracks or separations around doors and windows or brick veneer,” Goldschmidt said.

In order to help mitigate this, he suggests watering a home’s foundation.

“Dry soil problems can be slowed by using a soaker hose to provide a consistent, but not flooding, water source to the soil immediately surrounding the home’s foundation”, said Goldschmidt. “For best results, place the soaker hose around the perimeter of the house 8 to 18 inches outside the foundation.”

Before using a soaking hose, he suggested property owners inspect the exterior side of the foundation for existing cracks. The cracks should be cleaned and filled with foundation waterproofing, available in most hardware stores or lumber yards, he said.

According to Goldschmidt, cracks may appear in the cement slab of a carport or garage.

“A crack in brick or drywall does not necessarily mean there is a major problem, but if the crack begins to shift or form a gap, there might be a problem,” he said.

A study conducted by Swiss Re and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology released last summer found an increase in claims by European homeowners due to subsiding soils. The study forecasted a possible 50 percent jump in claims there in the years 2021 to 2040.

Beyond ruining crops and cracking foundations, the drought could also raise the cost of goods. Just this week, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that an 11 mile stretch of the Mississippi River had to be closed due to low water levels. Trade disruptions may be covered if a business has contingent business interruption coverage.

The Associated Press and Ben Berkowitz and Tom Polansek of Reuters contributed to this article.

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