Texas Is Bigger Than J.R.: the Brutal Heat Wave of '80 Proves Its Citizens' True Grit

updated 08/04/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Coiled perilously about the nation's midsection, the catastrophic summer heat wave had by last week caused more than 1,000 deaths, devastated billions of dollars of crops and livestock, and parched the lives of millions with its relentless repetition of 100°-plus days. In Arkansas miles of highway cracked and melted under the merciless sun. In St. Louis the National Guard was called up for a door-to-door search for poor and elderly victims, children left in sealed automobiles suffocated, and the overloaded city morgue hunted for extra refrigeration space. Meteorologists could not predict when the eight-mile-thick blanket of torrid air that stretched from California to New York would lift. To take a measure of the crisis, President Carter flew to the hardest-hit state of all, Texas—which has been facing up to the scorching drought with characteristic true grit. Last week PEOPLE Houston bureau chief Kent Demaret visited the north Texas town of Wichita Falls and found that after a history of tornadoes, hailstorms, floods, dust storms and an earthquake—"Everything but a volcano," cracks one old-timer—the people viewed the heat as just another siege in Nature's unending testing of humanity. His report:

The landscape around Wichita Falls resembles a dusty sepia-tinted photograph. The earth is cracked and crumbly. The grass crunches underfoot like splinters of glass. The color scheme suits the grim tableaux: thousands of heat-stricken chickens heaped into mass graves; withered cotton crops; tinder-dry brush bursting into flame; the occasional flash of knives and guns; and many old people, too poor to afford air conditioning and too bewildered to seek help, slowly succumbing to the heat unless emergency assistance reaches them in time. The temperature hasn't gotten below 100° here since June 23. Yet most of the people of Wichita Falls do what they have always done—grin and endure it. "I got to go home and boil some water so I can have a cool drink," goes one local joke, inviting this one-up: "Well, you ain't gonna believe this, but I saw a mockingbird pull a worm out of my wife's flower bed this morning, and the pore little devil had to use a pot holder he found on the clothesline."

Like that mockingbird, the residents of Wichita Falls survive by their wits and resourcefulness. "A pessimist can't stay at this work," says rancher-farmer Ray Hicks, 39. "I'm worried, but at the same time there's nothing a guy can do but create an ulcer if he keeps wringing his hands all the time." For Hicks and his neighbors in Wichita Falls, which produces $200 million in crops in a normal year, the heat has brought a new routine: waking at dawn to tend the cotton and cattle until about 10:30 a.m., when the heat grows too fierce. Midday is for indoor chores, and then by early evening Ray is back in the fields until dark. A few weeks ago he stayed in the sun too long—and he's not about to repeat that mistake. "I started seeing spots, then my legs turned to jelly, then I started panting like a hot old dog," he recalls. Far from home, he staggered to a nearby farmhouse. "I was panting so hard I couldn't even tell my friend's wife what I thought was wrong," he says. "I just lay there on their kitchen floor for about three hours, until I could get up."

"The Town that Faith Built," as Wichita Falls bills itself, has long been tried like Job. Having suffered an April 1979 tornado that killed 46 and destroyed $700 million of property in a town of 111,000, the citizens can't get too worked up now. "They told me when I came to Texas, 'If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute,' " says West Virginia native Russell Saunders, 26, who in 1976 settled in Wichita Falls with his New York-born wife after serving at the local Air Force base. "I know what they mean now." Though his 2-month-old son had to be swaddled in wet towels with two fans blowing like enormous hair dryers, Saunders says he is nonetheless glad to be in Texas. "I like the people," he says—and points to the air cooler given to his family by the First Baptist Church.

Church donations are just one form of help available to the needy. The Community Action Corporation, formed to administer relief funds, has received enough federal aid for approximately 540 people; 1,700 applications for help have come in so far. Says CAC energy coordinator Herb Taber: "A typical case is an elderly person on a fixed income who is looking ahead with dread at getting the electric bill." One victim is Louise Bruner, 75, who lives with her husband, Euel, in a tiny shack on Lake Wichita. An arthritis sufferer, Bruner spends her days wrapped in wet towels with a fan blowing hot air over her. "With the towels and the fan," she says, "I can at least stand it." The First Baptist Church plans to give the Bruners an air cooler; their wiring cannot accommodate a standard air conditioner. But even among the more affluent, comfort is uncertain. Air-conditioning use is so high that low-voltage brownouts are common. Outdoor businesses, like construction, report a 50 percent drop in productivity, and streets, parks and even pools are empty. The Little League baseball season is on hold.

But a farmer can't hide out indoors. With the help of his wife and three teen-aged daughters, Ray Hicks cares for his 80 head of cattle and—just in case it rains—he keeps plowing. "It may seem like a waste of time," says Hicks. "But if you don't do it, you'll wish you had." The next few weeks will determine the fate of his cotton crop. Stunted by the heat, which approaches 130° at ground level, the plants will not form bolls without rain—and the days of plowing, seeding, fertilizing and weeding will all be for naught. As a further hedge against ruination, Hicks is hoping to plant hay. His daughters share his deep commitment to the land. "I couldn't stand living in town," says Wendy, 18, the eldest. A Future Farmers of America state vice-president, she is thinking about veterinary school. "I can't stand all those people and noise and smog."

Hicks' toughest decision at the moment is deciding when to sell his herd. Unless it rains, his pasture will support them for only two more months. As some neighbors begin to panic, auction houses are filling up, and the price of cattle is dropping steadily. Should he hold out for rain, or sell now before the price drops further? "It's like gambling," he says. "We'll roll the dice now and know how they come up in a few weeks." A wrong guess could cost him $400 per cow.

Although meteorologists calmly explain that heat cycles like this generally recur about every 30 years (the last one this severe, however, was in the '30s), farmers like Hicks take little comfort. They know that the June 28 reading of 117° was the highest in Wichita Falls' history. And they can hardly forget that in their town July is merely the prelude to summer. The real hot weather comes in August.

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