Across the Southeast

Birmingham reports its driest year yet


BIRMINGHAM, ALA. --- Central Alabama ended its driest year on record Monday just as it spent most of 2007: Sunny, with hardly any chance of rain.

The National Weather Service said Birmingham received only 28.86 inches of precipitation for the past 12 months, compared to the previous yearly low 29 inches of rain. Other cities in the region didn't fare any better.

The old low-water mark for Birmingham was set in 1895, and a forecaster said the government is missing data from 114 days of that year. That means the '07 rainfall total was even more of an anomaly than it appears at first glance.

"Unofficially, it looks like 2007 will be the driest calendar year on record," said Jim Westland, a weather service meteorologist.

By comparison, Atlanta received 31.85 inches of rain for the year. 2007 was the second-driest year on record there.

Other Alabama cities got even less rain for the year than Birmingham, including Anniston with 22.39 inches; Huntsville with 28.65 inches; and Tuscaloosa with 26.05 inches.

Mr. Westland said the weather service is still compiling records to determine whether those cities had record years, too, but all the totals were well below normal..

Famed chief medical examiner has retired

RICHMOND, VA. --- The color scheme at the retirement party was purple, the liturgical color of mourning. The chitchat over hors d'oeuvres was about autopsies. Famed crime novelist Patricia Cornwell cracked jokes, the crowd's laughter spilling into the hallway -- which leads to a morgue.

Virginia's pioneering chief medical examiner, Dr. Marcella Fierro -- the inspiration for one of the most famous characters in crime literature -- retired Monday after more than three decades of service. And the woman who has dedicated her life to the dead is as unusual as the party recently thrown in her honor.

"You become much more aware of how tenuous life is," the 66-year-old told The Associated Press in an interview, reflecting on her career. "It is a great gift."

She worked on some of the nation's most notorious crimes, including the Virginia Tech shootings and Richmond's "Southside Strangler" serial killings.

Ms. Cornwell worked in Dr. Fierro's office and the doctor became her mentor.

Dr. Fierro also became the inspiration for the heroine of Ms. Cornwell's best-selling novels: Kay Scarpetta, which launched the forensic mystery craze.

-- Associated Press