Barry Smith walks through the grassy island between Comfort Road and Lake Forest Drive in Augusta's Hill area, gazing dejectedly at weeds overtaking the remains of once-glorious azalea beds.
"These are dead. They're not coming back," he said, crumbling a fistful of dried twigs, dust from the crisp brown leaves pluming into the air.
These azalea beds -- 15 to 25 years old, by Mr. Smith's estimate -- are among the thousands of taxpayer-owned plants the city government has lost during the summer's dry weather.
"We've probably lost about 15,000 azalea plants this summer," said Mr. Smith, director of Augusta's Trees and Landscape Department. "At a price of $4.50 to $4.75 apiece, that's about $68,000 worth of plants."
At least 100 of the city's young trees -- mostly crape myrtles and dogwoods -- also perished this summer, he added, along with almost the entire crop of summer annuals.
An unusually dry summer, coupled with two months of bans and restrictions on outdoor watering due to problems with the municipal water system, devastated the city's green spaces, Mr. Smith said, leading to what he dubbed "the browning of Augusta."
Since May 1, Augusta has received 6.18 inches of rainfall, about half of the normal rainfall for the season, said John Purvis, a climatologist with the Southeastern Regional Climate Center in Columbia. Normal rainfall from May to July should be 12.12 inches, he said.
And although most of the Southeast has suffered through near-drought conditions this summer, Augusta was hit particularly hard because of watering restrictions, which began May 22 and ended last week.
"It's very sad," said Terrace Road resident Pat Wiseman, president of the Garden Club of Georgia. "We put so much time and money into it (the landscape), and I don't think a lot will make it."
This summer has been a "worst-case scenario" for plants, Mrs. Wiseman said.
"It's a sad thing that it got to the state it did. The fact that the (water system) turbines went out, and the drought and the heat all at one time ... it was just a combination of everything. Everyone's lost azaleas and dogwoods."
The Trees and Landscape Department obeyed the same watering rules imposed on private property owners, Mr. Smith said, despite his requests for special provisions.
"We abided by the restrictions, watering every other block every other day, for one hour, which is next to impossible," Mr. Smith said. "You literally have to go back around and turn them back off when you get through turning them all on."
Crews "did everything humanly possible" to save the city's prized azaleas during the total ban on outdoor watering, Mr. Smith said, including calling in National Guard tanker trucks to water shrubbery and asking homeowners to recycle dishwater by splashing it on city trees near their property. Many trees have been enveloped in "treegators," plastic watering bags wrapped around them that seep water into the ground.
Complete estimates of the city government's plant losses are not available. A damage assessment should be completed later this week.
Just driving through the city these days depresses him, Mr. Smith said.
"I've been very frustrated lately," he said. "Not enough to throw in the towel, though."
The helplessness many homeowners have felt this summer watching their yards wither has been compounded for the city employees who maintain Augusta's green spaces -- the parks, the boulevards, the medians and roadsides.
While the financial impact of re-greening the city will be substantial, Mr. Smith is more distraught over the intangible losses.
The years of history, of community participation in beautifying the city's roadways, and the pleasing aesthetics plants contribute to a community's quality of life are all things that can't be immediately replaced, he said.
The Trees and Landscape Department recently began several new beautification projects in south Richmond County along Tobacco Road, Windsor Spring Road and Meadowbrook Drive. Those projects will now have to take a back seat while the department focuses on damage control and trying to return areas like downtown and the Hill to their former splendor.
"I can't even think about new projects. All the new projects are put on hold until we can get things back like they were," Mr. Smith said.
After the damage assessment is complete, Mr. Smith said he'll approach the Augusta Commission with a request for additional money from the 1998 budget to purchase new plants to be put in the ground this fall. Bushes planted this fall will bloom in the spring, but the young bushes will take years to reach magnificence.
Many of the azalea bushes that survived the summer won't bloom next spring because their buds have dried out. Azaleas set their buds in July and August, Mr. Smith explained, and when there isn't enough moisture in the soil for the plants to absorb, the buds die and the flowers don't bloom that year.
"What can you do?" he said, with a tone of helplessness. "You assess it, request money, hope they'll approve it, reassess priorities, put off projects. The most important thing now is getting things back the way they were."
Area garden clubs and civic organizations have a long history of supporting beautification projects, and Mayor Larry Sconyers said he hopes they'll continue with their assistance.
"If we can get some help from them, that can make it easier," he said. "This was an unfortunate occurrence, but it's happened and now we've all got to band together and move forward.
"I think with Barry's knowledge and ability to make things happen, he will be able to have Augusta looking just as good as it always has," Mr. Sconyers added. "He's worked magic for us before and I have faith in him."
Mr. Smith is confident something good will come out of this summer's loss. City workers will replant, regroup, and Augusta will have Masters Tournament flowers -- though the baby plants won't have the impressive full-flower cover of the older plants.
"I'm the ultimate optimist when it comes to making something good out of bad," he said. "I'm disappointed we've got to start over, but maybe this will be the beginning of a nice new time. Maybe we'll change out all the azaleas and start with a new cultivar, something with larger blooms that will bloom later -- on time with the Masters."
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