Temperatures reached a record 97 degrees yesterday and may well hit 100 today, but heat comes and goes around Washington. Much more distressing, experts say, is that a crackling dryness has set in remarkably early and shows no sign of letting up soon.

Springtime rainfall at Reagan National Airport has been about half of the typical eight inches, and last month's 1.28 inches made for the eighth-driest May on record. It hasn't rained a drop in June.

Usually, droughts don't come until late summer or fall. Since this one has come so early -- and because the ground is still parched from last year's drought -- crops, plants and trees are being crippled at their most vulnerable time. "We've never really faced this type of moisture situation in the past," said Ray Garibay, state statistician for Maryland's Agricultural Statistic Service.

The heat was forecast to peak today -- causing school authorities in at least three Maryland counties to plan early dismissals -- and then become less intense. But beyond "not this week," forecasters can't say when it will rain next. They do predict that by summer's end, the Washington area will have had as much rain as normal, courtesy of some late-season storms. Temperatures, meanwhile, are predicted to remain above average all summer.

In the dry heat, oaks and maples are rejecting their outermost leaves, still green, in a struggle to distribute what little moisture they have. Little bugs called thrips are sucking the sap from roses and irises. Already-dusty farms have grown weedy because herbicides haven't gotten the moisture needed to catalyze them.

Farmers in southern and eastern Maryland have stopped planting soybeans -- Maryland's second-largest crop -- with only half the seeds in the ground and just a month left before it will be too late to plant them at all in this growing cycle.

"There's just a lot of death, dying and suffering out there," said Dave Clement, director of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center, which has been getting a lot of desperate phone calls of late.

The National Weather Service reports that the drought conditions are severe in southern Maryland and moderate in northern and west-central Virginia and central and northeast Maryland.

The volume of water entering the Occoquan Reservoir is the smallest since record-keeping began 71 years ago, according to the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. Some towns, including Round Hill in western Loudoun County, have imposed mandatory water use restrictions.

Round Hill's reservoir dipped below half its capacity of 200,000 gallons in the last few weeks and "it's not recovering," said Mark A. Albright, water chairman on the Town Council.

"The town is out of water," Albright said. "There'll be no washing cars, no watering lawns, no filling swimming pools. It's not a good time to put in landscaping. Cactus would be all all right."

Leslie Metzger, who manages horses and llamas in the Bluemont area of Loudoun, wants to keep what well water there is for her animals. So she makes sacrifices. "With the shower, normally I let it run while it warms up," she said. "Now I just turn it on and get in and grin and bear it."

Lou Southard, state fire chief with the Virginia Department of Forestry, said officials are bracing for a severe fall fire season. The state already has lost more forestland to blazes this year, 6,000 acres, than in all of 1998, one of the worst years on record.

Despite the drought, the Interstate Commission forecasts that the Washington area will have enough water to meet the region's needs this summer. And if rain starts coming consistently, and in the next couple of weeks, Garibay said, "we could see this crop rebound in a heartbeat."

Meanwhile, the weather is affecting plenty of people who don't have plants to tend. Area governments issued a "Code Red" alert yesterday for ozone, urging motorists to limit driving and refuel after dark. Metrobus offered free rides on lines running exclusively in Northern Virginia and in Prince George's or Montgomery counties.

Baltimore schools closed for the day. Prince George's schools plan to close two hours early today, as do Anne Arundel schools. In St. Mary's County, school authorities said classes would end 2 1/2 hours early.

Forecasters are at a loss to predict when the rain will come, but they can explain why it hasn't. A ridge of high pressure -- dry air -- that normally would be above Bermuda is sitting right over the eastern United States.

High-pressure systems are hard to break. There has been a wet low-pressure system over the Midwest and Plains this spring, which is why a Dundalk, Md., family now returns from vacation to crispy azaleas, while their farmer cousins near Des Moines are squishing through mud, wondering when they'll be able to get the tractor through the fields.

But that low pressure would have a hard time trying to knock through the high-pressure system, because dry, weightier air is stronger than moist, relatively flimsy air. And the jet stream, which would otherwise be able to send rain this way, is sitting farther north than usual, in Canada.

It's a year for La Nin~a, El Nin~o's antithesis, which means that it probably will be stormier than normal in the Atlantic. "A hurricane might affect the coast in a devastating manner, but it may be a very beneficial gift to the farmers along the East Coast," said Mike Hayes, a climate impact specialist with the National Drought Mitigation Center.

A September hurricane would be little comfort, though, to farmers such as Buddy Hance, of Port Republic in Calvert County, who never got his soybeans into the ground and whose corn plants are curling in knots.

"If we go three more weeks like this," Hance said, "we're probably done for the year."

Staff writers D'Vera Cohn, Michael H. Cottman, Spencer S. Hsu, Jennifer Lenhart and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

CAPTION: DRY TIMES (This chart was not available)