America: A Year of Weather Woes

From the September-October 2002 Trumpet Print Edition

In the United States, this year’s extreme weather conditions tell a story stranger than fiction. Consider:

In early January, heavy snows, sleet and freezing rain hit parts of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, resulting in over 60,000 power outages. Later in the month, a powerful storm brought ice and heavy snows across the Midwest, the Plains and Great Lakes and into New England, stranding airline passengers and shutting down schools. At least 15 deaths were blamed on the slick roads and freezing temperatures.

In February, high winds whipped across Southern California, uprooting trees and shutting down power for hundreds of residents. Nearly a thousand firefighters were called to battle a wildfire that scorched more than 5,000 acres, leaving 34 homes and six other structures destroyed.

A snowstorm in early March that swept from Texas to Michigan killed 21 people. Sleet, snow and freezing rain contributed to hundreds of traffic accidents and cancelled flights. The National Guard evacuated residents affected by a storm that knocked out 250 homes in the worst flooding to hit eastern Kentucky in 25 years.

Meanwhile, drought conditions intensified in parts of the Southwest and the Eastern U.S.; rainfall in the southern Rocky Mountains was only 30 percent of normal. Summer weather came early across parts of the Midwest, with April temperatures soaring into the 90s. The heat extended to New England, with record-high temperatures near or above 95 degrees.

In late April, a severe storm system in the Tennessee and Ohio valleys spawned killer tornadoes, high winds and hail. On the system’s northern edge, 20 inches of snow fell overnight in Wisconsin, leaving more than 40,000 people without power. Tornadoes struck Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois, causing one death in each state; tornadoes in Tennessee and Ohio also caused widespread damage. In Maryland, an F5 tornado (the highest classification—strong enough to debark trees, pick up houses and toss automobiles more than 100 yards) carved a path 400 yards wide and 30 miles long, and came within 25 miles of Washington, d.c.

In early May, five inches of rain fell in six hours, flooding streams and rivers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. Some communities were cut off by mudslides. More than 100,000 homes and businesses lost power at the peak of the storm. Flash flooding in the Appalachians left at least six people dead and 14 missing. At the same time, in stark contrast, drought intensified in areas along the East Coast, especially in the southeast.

In June, fires in Arizona burned over 450,000 acres and destroyed well over 400 homes. Colorado saw 210,000 acres and over 175 homes eaten up by wildfires. By the end of July, over 4 million acres had been burned nationally.

Record-high temperatures seared parts of the West, with triple-digit readings in many states. The warmer-than-usual temperatures recorded during the last decade have been so unusual that a comprehensive new planting guide for gardeners is slated for publishing this fall. This summer’s extreme drought conditions across the southeast, high plains and western states have wrought huge agricultural losses, and have even driven rats from their usually well-hidden nests to forage in the wealthy neighborhoods and trendy restaurants of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades in Southern California.

Meanwhile, floods caused eight deaths in South Texas when over 40 inches of rain fell in a seven-day period in July. More than 33,000 square miles and 48,000 residents were affected by the floodwaters, and 24 Texas counties were listed as federal disaster areas.

July and August saw floods and mudslides wreak damage in southwestern Colorado, even as fires still burned in other parts of the state. Vehicles were swept off roads; rivers of mud filled houses and businesses. Officials say, with the hillsides burned bare, inevitable future floods will cause more damage and cost more than the fires.

On August 12, the rapidly spreading drought in the Midwest forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to drastically slash its harvest forecasts. In revisions the biggest since the droughts of the 1980s, the nation’s most valuable crop, corn, was reduced by an incredible 9.2 percent, and the number-two crop, soybeans, was cut by 8.1 percent. The drought is shrinking crop reserves—the country’s buffer against shortages—to uncomfortably low levels.