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Heat wave and drought were so devastating it had Americans declaring, 'God is against us'

By John Roach, AccuWeather staff writer
August 09, 2019, 12:44:30 PM EDT

1988 heat wave and drought

Gary Krapu, a federal research biologist at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center on Wednesday, June 25, 1988 in Jamestown, North Dakota, examines an expanse of dried marshland following record-breaking heat, a drastic drop in rainfall and a dry winter. (AP Photo/Gary Stewart)

The heat wave that smothered much of the United States in 1988 was simultaneously in-your-face extreme almost daily and yet beyond nightmarish imagination.

It included the largest fire in Yellowstone National Park’s recorded history, as the park experienced almost no rainfall from June through August.

The heat wave and drought that year blistered a large swath of the country and pushed temperatures consistently into the 90s and 100s from the Midwest to the East Coast.

And on June 21, 1988, nearly every state in the continental U.S. reported temperatures above 90 degrees, except those in northern New England, UPI reported at the time.

The extent of the extreme conditions were laid bare in the dramatic open to the June 24 edition of ABC's "World New Tonight." Just three days into official summer, Peter Jennings, the venerable newsman and the network's top anchor at the time, opened that evening's broadcast by recounting the deadly impacts and describing the frustrations some Americans were suffering as the hot, dry weather tightened its grip on an expanding portion of the country.

Some Midwesterners, he told viewers, were "so distraught, they've told their congressman, 'God is against us,'" as he tossed to ABC News correspondent Chris Bury for a deeper look at how the heat wave was wreaking havoc.

Jenning drought image

The ABC News report on the heat wave was dramatic, but it was still only June 24, 1988 and things would get worse. (YouTube / ABC News)

The deaths in the thousands resulting from the heat wave and drought were hard to count then and hard to fathom now more than 30 years later.

“If I had in my hand right now the number of people that have died this summer, it would be front-page news all over the country,” W. Moulton Avery, executive director of the Center for Environmental Physiology in Washington, D.C., told the New York Times in 1988. “But I don’t have that number.”

At the time, death totals were estimated by comparing deaths in heat wave years to normal years and calculating the excess fatalities, the Times noted. As a result, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people died as a result of extreme heat that begin in 1988 and lasted into 1990 in some places.

The losses and costs to agriculture and related industries totaled an estimated $44.2 billion, making it one of the most severe weather and climate disasters since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The heat wave and drought of 1988 was a mere 31 years ago, though the details surrounding it seem more like a surreal echo of the landscape-altering Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. But it is not merely a memory; the 1988 heat wave is also a reminder.

Could it happen again?

“Sure, no doubt about it,” said AccuWeather Expert Senior Meteorologist Dave Dombek. “Weather patterns are cyclical.”

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‘The bull’s-eye of the heat wave’

The heat wave of 1988 was actually two distinct heat waves. “The heat was really intense the first half of July, then it backed off in the second half of July,” said Dombek, an AccuWeather meteorologist for 39 years who remembers 1988 well. “Then, the heat came roaring back in the first half of August.”

Cities around the U.S. experienced a summer like no other.

Chicago topped 100 degrees seven times, the same number of 100-degree days it had from 1954-87 combined. Philadelphia saw the mercury climb into the triple digits on five days, the same combined total from 1958-87. New York City saw 32 90-degree days – the city had more just twice from 1945-87.

1988 heat and drought

Walking through his drought-damaged cornfield in Gilbertville, Iowa, in June 1988, Firmin Rottinghauf, 72, calls the conditions, "the worst I've seen since '36." He and many other Midwest farmers suffered through a season of drought that threatened their crops and livestock. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)

“Where the anomalies and departures from the normal were greatest would be the area from Madison, Wisconsin, Chicago, Indianapolis into Ohio, western and central Pennsylvania and into the mid-Atlantic,” Dombek said. “That slice of territory was where the epicenter of the extreme heat was. That was like the bull’s-eye of the heat wave, but a very large territory of the country was affected by it.”

Kansas City, Missouri, had 16 days over 100 degrees; it averaged only 3.8 a year in the 30 years from 1958-87. Salt Lake City, Utah, reached 90 degrees on 49 of 55 straight days from June into August. And Atlanta experienced 59 90-degree days after averaging nearly half as many (30.3 days) for the 30 years from 1958-87.

“Clearly if a heat wave goes on for 10 days, 12 days or more … it can be devastating,” said AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers. “Your body has a certain amount of resiliency, but the longer the heat wave goes, the more it creates a stress on your body and the more it takes out of you. That’s why the death toll accelerates with the length of a heat wave. It’s not only how hot it gets, but how long it lasts.”

Midwest 1988 heat wave

A cow moos from a partially dried up pond on a farm near Prairie Home, Neb., June 23, 1988. Record high temperatures burned any lingering moisture from the dusty soil in the nation's farm belt in the days that followed. (AP Photo/John Gaps III)

From a weather standpoint, the source region providing the air that summer was not the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, continental air was coming down through the Canadian prairies and northern Plains, according to Dombek.

“The Gulf of Mexico was shut off for long stretches of time, so you didn’t have the really high dew points; you didn’t have the source of rich moisture. As a result, these fronts were coming through mainly dry,” Dombek said, referring to a sprawling ridge that blocked moisture over the Gulf from spreading north into the continental U.S. “Then the dryness fed the heat. The drier it is, the hotter it will be. The two feed off each other and that’s why it was not only a heat wave, but it was a drought.”

By June 1988, the drought covered 40% of the nation and in the central U.S. -- the primary area for growing corn and soybeans -- and for the period covering April-June 1988, rainfall was the lowest of the 20th century to that point.

In Sumner County, Iowa, the situation had become so desperate, according to ABC News' Bury, that residents gathered and held a prayer vigil where they implored God to let it rain. And then it rained -- though it was too little to break the drought's stranglehold on their area and the country. The "World News Tonight" report can be seen in its entirety below.

The 1988 heat wave and drought’s $44.2 billion price tag -- about $95.7 billion in 2019 dollars -- was estimated to be one of the most costly climate anomalies of the 20th century.

1988 heat wave map

Map of drought conditions in the contiguous U.S. in August 1988 (NOAA)

While the summer of 2019 brought a deadly heat wave to the central and eastern U.S., it cannot be said that either the frequency or magnitude of heat waves in the U.S. is more common today, according to AccuWeather’s Dr. Joel N. Myers. A total of 37 of 50 states have an all-time high temperature record not exceeded for more than 75 years.

However, when extreme heat is in the forecast, Dombek said changes since 1988 have played a substantial role.

“Getting the message out is huge,” Dombek said. “Back then, you didn’t have the internet the way it is today, or all of the social media platforms.

“Also, we have so much more forecasting information and the industry’s forecasting models have gotten better in terms of being able to recognize a pattern like 1988 ahead of time and to give a heads-up to cities and authorities and warn them,” Dombek added. “We have much more information and much greater capacity to get that information to the public.”

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