Lessons Learned from 1950s' Heat Wave Show Planning Needed for Future Severe Events, Illinois State Water Survey

ISWS Press Release

For Immediate Release May 18, 2011
Lessons Learned from 1950s' Heat Wave Show Planning Needed for Future Severe Events
Nancy Westcott - (217) 244-0884, nan@illinois.edu
Lisa Sheppard - (217) 244-7270, sheppard@illinois.edu

Studying the impacts of a widespread, long-lasting heat wave in 1954 foretells increased power and water shortages if a weather event of that magnitude were to happen today, according to Nancy Westcott, climatologist at the Illinois State Water Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In July 1954 a heat wave with 22 days of temperatures over 100 degrees covered significant parts of 11 states, including Illinois. The highest recorded temperature in Illinois was 117 degrees on July 14 in East St. Louis, which still stands as the state record.

Westcott searched newspaper archives to document the impacts of this record-breaking heat wave in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. This event, which lasted from the last week in June to the first week in September, ranked as one of the top five extended periods of heat in these states since 1895. In this region, no event of this severity has occurred since.

“Many of us living today have not experienced such prolonged high temperatures,” Westcott said. “Severe conditions led to deaths, water and power shortages, crop and livestock losses, and other adverse effects that impacted nearly all sectors of society.”

In a time when air conditioning was still new, some homes had room air conditioners, but most businesses did not. Newspapers reported that in hospital rooms without air conditioning, nurses had difficulty taking patients' temperatures because thermometers would not go below 100 degrees.

Nationwide, more than 300 deaths were attributed to the heat during that time, mostly in the 50 to 90 age group. The toll was likely much higher as heat-related deaths were typically under-reported. During the first 18 days of July in Kansas City, Kansas, there were more deaths than births, an unusual occurrence.

While streets buckled and railroad tracks warped from the heat, three lakes in the St. Louis area dried up, and water rationing was enforced. Certain areas had weak water pressure, and others had almost no water. Air conditioner usage resulted in record-breaking water and power use, straining the utility supplies.

The hot, dry conditions were ideal for harvesting winter wheat, but corn, soybeans, and spring wheat crops wilted. Some areas reported 100 percent loss of their crop.

A number of factors could exacerbate the effects of an extended heat wave if it were to occur again, such as population growth and per capital energy use increases, Westcott said.

“If such a heat wave were to occur without significant planning, water shortages and an increased burden on the power industry seems likely,” she said. “Studies of past heat waves such as the one in 1954 could serve as a template for planning for a heat wave in the future. If it happened before, it can happen again.”

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