NEW ORLEANS - Mother Nature has outdone herself with this cruel joke: Southern Louisiana, much of which was underwater not so long ago, is in the throes of a severe to extreme drought.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita accounted for most of the rain the region has seen in more than a year, weather experts say. Southeastern Louisiana is on pace for its driest January-though-April ever.

According to the Lincoln, Neb.-based National Drought Mitigation Center, southern Louisiana is under conditions of either severe or extreme drought - with the extreme conditions closer to the coast.

State climatologist Jay Grymes said he believes the entire region may already be, or soon will be, under extreme conditions if there is no heavy rain.

The culprit is La Nina, an area of cool water in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that has pushed the jet stream and the typical west-to-east storm pattern north of southern Louisiana. It has also disrupted normal storm formation in the Gulf of Mexico.

Trouble already is starting for agriculture.

According to the LSU AgCenter, rice fields inundated with salt water from Rita's surge are not getting rinsed out because there hasn't been enough rain. The process had been projected to take at least 18 months even with normal rainfall.

If there is any positive news from the drought, it is in New Orleans, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is trying to repair levees before the June 1 start of the hurricane season.

"Weatherwise, we've done really well," said Corps spokeswoman Kim Gillespie.

To break the drought, Grymes said the state needs a long period of steady rain - not the inches-in-hours downpours that tropical storms and hurricanes bring. Most of that rain quickly washes off into ditches and bayous and does little good, he said.

The forecast into June, however, calls for a 70 to 75 percent chance of normal and below-normal rainfall.

"Normal rainfall is not what we need," Grymes said. "We need a wet spell."