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2011 heat wave not the hottest in US history, not by a long shot

David KarasThe Christian Science Monitor

Many Americans across the US were feeling the heat Monday, but how hot is it? The National Weather Service issued heat-related advisories for residents in 17 states, forecasting temperatures close to 100 degrees F. in the central and southern plains, and the middle and lower Mississippi Valley. In some parts of those regions, it will feel as hot as 115 degrees. Conditions are expected to continue into Tuesday.

So far, the heat wave at hand is nowhere near as severe as the worst recorded since 1980, when the National Climate Data Center began compiling such data. Here is a look at the five deadliest US heat waves/droughts since then.

#5 Spring and summer 2000

About 140 people died during a heat wave and drought throughout the spring and summer of 2000, report officials with the National Climate Data Center. South-central and southeastern states were hit the hardest. Losses in agriculture and related industries topped $4.8 billion. During the heat wave, some areas experienced as many as 20 more days than usual of temperatures above 90 degrees F.

#4 Summer 1998

At least 200 deaths and as much as $11.3 billion in damages ensued after a severe heat wave struck the nation, particularly the swath from Texas and Oklahoma eastward to North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Cattle died and crops withered, as ranchers and farmers experienced particularly heavy financial losses. The same summer made the record books for severe flooding in China and other parts of the United States; hurricane Bonnie, meanwhile, struck North Carolina and Virginia. The combined worldwide death toll that summer exceeded 3,000.

#3 Summer 1999

Some 502 deaths and at least $1.2 billion in damage resulted from the summer drought and heat wave that struck the East Coast in particular, estimate officials from the National Climate Data Center. The aftermath included extensive losses in the agriculture industry, and temperatures exceeded those on the record books.

In Texas, 24 consecutive days with temperatures above 100 degrees signaled the fourth longest heat wave of its kind on record to that date.

#2 Summer 1988

During the summer of 1988, a drought and heat wave affecting the central and eastern portions of the US were responsible for 5,000 to 10,000 deaths, officials estimated, factoring in deaths related to heat stress. The blow to agriculture and related industries totaled about $71.2 billion, making the incident one of the most severe on the “Billion Dollar US Weather Disasters” list, which includes all types of weather-related events and is compiled by the National Climate Data Center.

#1 June through September 1980

A staggering 10,000 people died (including heat stress-related deaths) and the US agriculture sustained almost $55.4 billion in damages and costs after a severe heat wave and drought hit the central and eastern portions of the country in the summer of 1980.

Temperatures in Memphis, Tenn., for instance, remained above average for 26 consecutive days. Most of those who perished were over the age of 60. The summer’s death toll far exceeded the annual national average of 175 deaths that are attributed to the heat.