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Unrelenting heat cooks South

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The heat wave that has seared the South for weeks is now blamed for nearly 50 deaths and for ruining crops across thousands of acres. Forecasters say no relief is in sight.

"All my plants at home have died. I'm so weak, and I'm a diabetic," said 78-year-old Annie Dennis, who ate lunch Tuesday at the air-conditioned Charities Center in Dallas with about 100 others. Her air conditioning is broken at home: "It's like you're going into a steam room."Officials warned those outside to take breaks and those who had elderly friends or relatives to check on them.

It was 101 degrees in Dallas on Tuesday, relatively cool after 110 on Sunday, when Fort Worth hit 112. Many recall the sweltering summer of 1980, when Dallas recorded 26 days of 100-degree heat by July 13. So far, there have been nine days over 100.

But the forecast through Sunday was for more of the same. Wednesday's high in Dallas was expected to range from 101 to 103.

The federal government said Tuesday that June on average worldwide was the hottest June in more than a century of keeping climate records. In fact, each month so far in 1998 has eclipsed past temperature records on a global average.

"How much more proof do we need that global warming is real?" Vice President Al Gore asked Tuesday after summoning climate officials to the White House to announce the latest temperature data.

Gore, the administration's most strident voice on the issue of global warming, said last month's temperature data was "more evidence" that man-made heat-trapping greenhouse gases are leading to long-term climate change.

"It is so incredibly unusual to have six months in a row and every single one of those months sets an all-time new record for being the highest month ever. You can see quite clearly the long-term warming trend," insisted Gore as he chastised Congress for failing to endorse the administration's proposals to curtail greenhouse gases.

Skeptics of global warming argue that short-term temperature data are inadequate to predict long-term trends and point out that the scientific community remains divided about whether significant warming will occur or what impact it will have.

The current heat wave has stretched from Arizona into Colorado and east to Florida but has been particularly deadly across the South. It is blamed for at least 23 deaths in Texas, six in Oklahoma and at least 20 in Louisiana since mid-May.

In Texas, many of those killed by the heat already had heart disease or another medical condition. Ten victims were older than 60, and all but four died in homes where air conditioners were broken or turned off.

It is not only hot but dry.

Florida and New Mexico have struggled with fires for weeks, while drought conditions have left all but four of Georgia's 159 counties as disaster areas, clearing the way for farmers to obtain federal aid. Damages in Georgia are estimated at $400 million; the non-irrigated corn crop is lost, pastures are stunted and high-value peanut, cotton and tobacco crops were beginning to see damage.

South Carolina declared a drought July 1, but conditions are only now beginning to worsen.

Texas' drought was Texas-sized, with farmers and ranchers estimated to lose $1.5 billion. The ripple effect from the drought was expected to drain $4.6 billion from the Texas economy over the next 18 months.

"Now we know that any way you cut it, the cotton crop is a complete wash," said Roland Smith, a researcher at the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.

Though Georgia farmers would be eligible for low-cost loans with the federal disaster declaration, several said most farmers already are too deeply in debt.

"Farmers don't need more loans," said Wayne Dollar, president of the 300,000-member Georgia Farm Bureau. "There has to be another type of help."