The drought that has gripped the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this summer is the second-worst of the century and has left ground drier than it has been since the Great Depression, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said yesterday.
The Washington area had its second-hottest July on record. The months between August 1998 and July 1999 were the second-driest 12-month period on record here, with a total of 24.13 inches of rain at Reagan National Airport, according to the National Weather Service.
That's 14.5 inches below normal and only four inches better than the region's worst drought ever, which ran from March 1930 to February 1931.
"We need a couple of feet of water to get out of this. That's a couple of tropical storms," D. James Baker, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Although the water shortage has merely meant inconvenience for those who have had dry lawns and shorter showers, it has devastated farmers who have watched acres of corn and soybeans shrivel up.
The sweltering temperatures that settled in over the eastern half of the United States have killed 182 people. In Chicago alone, 30 people -- mostly senior citizens without air conditioning -- died yesterday as the city sweltered through its second week of record-high temperatures, officials said. A refrigerated trailer was brought in to store bodies until autopsies could be done.
Temperatures dropped in the Midwest yesterday afternoon when thunderstorms swept through, bringing relief from the stubborn mass of stagnant air that has blanketed the region for two weeks. But the storms were largely breaking up before reaching the East.
At Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina, the temperature hit a record-breaking 104, the third consecutive day of temperatures over 100.
In the Washington area, the number of reported deaths from the heat have been far lower. Two deaths were reported in Virginia. In the District, at least two deaths were attributed to the heat during July. In one case a severely retarded man died after being left in a van on a 99-degree day.
Weather forecasters are promising some relief here from the heat this week and hold out hope for close-to-normal rainfall over the next three months. But it will take more than a few thunderstorms to return the parched area to normal, meteorologists said.
In the Washington area, officials have been asking residents for voluntary conservation of water, and in a few harder-hit jurisdictions, mandatory rationing has been imposed. Water restrictions are in place in Loudoun County, as well as in Poolesville and communities in Frederick, Calvert and Carroll counties.
In Virginia, 11 localities, including Loudoun, have asked for federal disaster assistance, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture. In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) declared a statewide emergency Thursday, asking residents to conserve water while he considers imposing water restrictions statewide for the first time.
The heat and drought have also contributed to poor air quality in the Washington area and up the East Coast, meteorologists said. New York State is suffering the worst smog conditions in a decade.
"With the heat wave we've had this past month, there's been a very stagnant air mass," AccuWeather meteorologist Laura Hannon said. "Especially around urban areas, pollutants [from motor vehicles and lawn mowers] build up and build up, and there's nothing to move them away or clean them out -- namely wind or rain."
Landscapers are counseling anguished suburbanites to give up on their lawns and use the limited water available for their gardens, especially for recent plantings whose roots do not yet reach deep into the soil.
"What I have seen is a lot of azaleas drying up, since they have shallow roots," said Helmut Jaehnigen, chief horticulturist at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. "Also rhododendrons -- they suffer the most. Once they get off-color, that's the kiss of death. No amount of water will bring them back."
Golf course maintenance workers are struggling to keep their greens if not lush, then at least a little bit green.
"It just doesn't get much more difficult than this year," said Bill Nues, director of maintenance at Hobbits Glen Golf Course in Columbia.
"I mean, we started fighting this drought in early June, and it's been so relentless. You expect this in August, but not in June. Right now, we're just so worn out. And we're faced with another six weeks of this. It's not going to end any time soon for us."
Although the heat and water shortages have hit the East Coast hard, they aren't expected to affect food prices significantly.
"Ironically, the heartland of America -- Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, all through the middle -- they're doing pretty well now in terms of rainfall," Glickman said yesterday on "Face the Nation."
"That means that this drought and heat wave probably won't have any kind of dramatic effect on food prices or shortages."
There could be problems, however, in supplies of fresh produce in Northeastern cities, the secretary said.
Staff writers Tomoko Hosaka, Eugene L. Meyer and Seth Wickersham and wire services contributed to this report.