July heatwave and drought of 1999

Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 10:01 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 19, 2022 at 9:36 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Two of the worst droughts in our local history, 1930 and 1999.

This drought of 1999 really started in the late summer of 1998. Below average rainfall continued for the fall and into the start of winter. In fact in November of 1998 rainfall for most weather stations in the area was less than 1″.

There was little relief with some snow in January and February but the drought expanded into the spring of 1999. An extreme drought continued into the summer of 1999 and with little moisture in the air, this means hotter temperatures. Crops were hit hard, livestock was affected, the water supply and the rivers ran nearly dry.

LACK OF RAINFALL

Average rainfall for a summer is about 12″. Typically some spots see more just due to individual storms. Rainfall for the entire summer of 1999, that’s June, June, and August was about what you would typically see in a month or a month in a half. Rainfall was about 8 to 10″ below average for the summer.

TOWNRAINFALL (3 MONTH)TOWNSUMMER (3 MONTH)
MOOREFIELD3.97″WOODSTOCK5.49″
SUGAR GROVE3.99″STAUNTON5.63″
PETERSBURG5.11″FRANKLIN6.51″
DALE ENTERPRISE5.12″LURAY7.00″

There were a few storms during the summer of 1999. One severe storm moved through Augusta County on July 31 and led to a tornado. This was about 5 miles east of Staunton.

Lighting from another storm on that day led to a wildfire west of Woodstock in Shenandoah County.

THE HEAT

For July of 1999, a persistent ridge of high pressure centered over the area. When this happens storms are more so directed around this high. At the Dale Enterprise weather station 26 out of the 31 days in July were above 90° and 4 of those days at or above 100°.

These were some of the highest temperatures recorded in our area during July of 1999

TOWNHIGHDATE
DALE ENTERPRISE (4 MI W OF HARRISONBURG)105°JULY 6
WOODSTOCK105°JULY 5
SUGAR GROVE102°JULY 8
CHARLOTTESVILLE102°JULY 6
STAR TANNERY102°JULY 7
EDINBURG101°JULY 10
WOODSTOCK101°JULY 31
MOOREFIELD100°JULY 21
LURAY100°JULY 7
STAUNTON99°JULY 6

RIVER LEVELS

Not only did ponds run dry but river were at or near record low levels. In the summer of 1999 the Clinton Administration declared all of West Virginia and 33 counties of Virginia an agricultural drought disaster area. Losses to farmers just in West Virginia totaled $80 million.

With the persistent and severity of the drought, rivers ran low as well as the tributaries. According to the National Weather Service report, “The Shenandoah River dropped to less than 22% of its normal flow and the water level near Strasburg was at the lowest recorded in July since records began 72 years ago.”

In southern Shenandoah County, Holman’s Creek near Forestville ran dry by the end of July 1999.

PALMER DROUGHT INDEX

The Palmer drought index is a measure of historic drought conditions. By July of 1999 the entire area was in a severe drought. The lack of precipitation was simply devastating for our local and state agriculture. Crops just didn’t even have a chance to grow or they died in the fields with the lack of rain. Even the trees were shedding leaves early.

This excerpt is from the National Weather Service report, " Corn that should have been 6 feet high was only waist-high at best and did not germinate. Some farmers had to reduce their herd sizes in order to stretch hay and water supplies. In Shenandoah County, extension agents reported 3,000 cattle had died or were sold to slaughter early during the month.

Augusta County estimated drought losses at $20,000,000, with every cash crop reporting a yield loss of at least 70%. The Page County extension office reported more than half of the crops in the county were lost.

Because of the drought the spring wildfire season basically extended into the summer. The Virginia Department of Forestry reported a record fire season January through July of 1999 with 1,320 fires burning 6,146 acres across the state.

In early July of 1999, a 58 year-old man who was hiking near the Doyles River Trail at Shenandoah National Park and died from a heart attack that was brought on by heat stress. Rockingham and Augusta County reported several people needing treatment for heat related illnesses during the month of July.

Other notes from the National Weather Service report, “Road surfaces and cars also fell victim to the heat. Tar on roads near Community Park and New Market in Shenandoah County melted and had to be covered with gravel. State police reported 30 vehicles were disabled by the heat.

High demand for electrical power blew transformers, leading to widely scattered power outages. Staunton cancelled summer school classes on the 6th due to the heat. The heat also contributed to several wildfires. A fire in Rockingham County sparked by an electric fence burned 60 acres.

In Shenandoah County, an overheated car off Virginia Route 720 ignited a fire that burned 9 acres of barley. The exhaust system of a second car caught fire and sparked another fire in the same field. Another 20 acres burned near Meems Bottom after a spark from farm machinery set a grass field ablaze.

This historic drought ended in the fall of 1999 for the Shenandoah Valley but drought conditions persisted for West Virginia through the winter, and ending the following spring.

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