Summer Scorchers: America’s 9 Worst Heat Waves Ever Recorded

Family History
26 February 2015

EPA heat wave index
[Credit: EPA]
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a record of heat waves starting in 1895. Since that time there have been nine major heat waves to hit the U.S., and each has left damage and destruction in its wake.

1. Heat Wave of 1896

New York City experienced tragedy during the summer of 1896. Nearly 1,500 people died during a 10-day heat wave as temperatures reached 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. Most of the people affected were tenement dwellers with little help from the government. It wasn’t until the end of the heat wave that then little-known Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt came the rescue of the urban poor by distributing ice to the residents.

2. Heat Wave of 1934

The United States’ hottest year on record saw 29 straight days of temperatures hitting triple digits. To top it off, during the summer of 1934, an extreme drought affected over 70 percent of Western North America.

3. Heat Wave of 1936

1936 was one of the worst years for the American people. Battered by the Great Depression, drought, and dust storms, the area of the Dust Bowl was hit especially hard by the heat wave. Temperatures hit record highs, going well over the 120-degree mark in some regions. By the end of the summer, more than 5,000 Americans had died from heat-related causes and drownings that occurred when people tried to cool off.

4. Heat Wave of 1954

From Colorado to the Carolinas, a significant portion of 11 states cooked under the 1954 heat wave. For 22 days, temperatures reached over 100 degrees. The heat damaged crops, caused power and water shortages, and generally wreaked havoc over the entire region. Three lakes dried up in the St. Louis area, and water was rationed. The estimated 300 deaths recorded mostly affected people ages 50-99.

5. Heat Wave of 1980

A mix of drought and heat made 1980 a terrible summer for the U.S. Though not as bad as earlier heat waves, this one stood out because of the damage. The economic losses were estimated at $16 billion, while the death toll was at least 1,700.

6. Heat Wave of 1988

Another heat wave coupled with a massive drought occurred in 1988. With the loss of anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 lives, the catastrophe was devastating. The agricultural damage was estimated at $71.2 billion. Wildfires hit national parks like Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, and rainfall from April through June registered even lower than the Dust Bowl years.

7. 1995 Chicago Heat Wave

Chicago lived through five sweltering days that resulted in approximately 700 heat-related deaths. The temperature reached 106 degrees, and record humidity levels made things worse. The tragic deaths also brought to light the disparity of wealth during times of national emergencies. The deaths mostly affected elderly, poor residents of the inner city.

8. Heat Wave of 2006

Spread throughout most of the U.S., the heat wave of 2006 saw heat-related deaths from New York to California. Temperatures climbed to over 100 degrees, and California saw the most lives lost with 126.

9. Heat Wave of 2012

The most recent heat wave is one of the worst on record. Failed crops across the Midwest cost $30.3 billion. The shortage drove up food prices, affecting the rest of the country. Combined with 123 fatalities, the loss was devastating.

Find out which of your relatives beat the heat, or explore the historical newspapers on Ancestry.

—Shanna Yehlen