PHILADELPHIA --As the mid-Atlantic states grappled with the worst dry spell in a generation, that has killed 150 people nationwide, experts warned that the spell could end in a wave of flash floods.
Meanwhile, President Clinton has released $55 million in federal aid to help residents of nine states cope with the heat. The money, provided under a program that is used more often to help low-income people pay for heat during the winter, may be used to buy air conditioners, fans, and other relief.
Illinois will get $15.9 million; Kentucky $7.7 million; Missouri $7.6 million; Indiana $7.1 million; Wisconsin $4.4 million; Iowa $3.4 million; Kansas $3.3 million; Minnesota $3 million; and Nebraska $2.1 million.
With river and creek levels at or near all-time lows in the seven mid-Atlantic states, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman asked the U.S. government to declare a natural disaster in 19 counties so that drought-plagued farmers there can qualify for low-interest federal loans.
''Preliminary data indicate that approximately 406,000 acres on more than 7,000 farms in New Jersey have sustained crop damage ranging from 30 to 100 percent,'' Whitman said in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who declared farm disasters in Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
In southern New Jersey, 14 communities imposed their own mandatory water restrictions to stop people from watering lawns and filling swimming pools.
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening met with members of a state drought coordinating committee in Annapolis to consider new measures that could be imposed.
Mid-Atlantic states from Virginia to New England have been hardest-hit by dry conditions nationwide that have caused forest fires in the West, spawned mandatory restrictions in the Northeast and threatened farm crops including the supply of Christmas trees in New York State.
Meteorologists, who blame the drought on a jet stream that has stubbornly remained north of the mid-Atlantic all summer, say dry conditions are likely to continue until at least late August, when the East Coast hurricane season begins.
''Historically speaking, droughts such as this are often broken by tropical storms or hurricanes,'' said Barbara Watson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sterling, Virginia.
But that may only mean new hardships for mid-Atlantic residents. Parched land has a difficult time absorbing rainfall, raising the danger of runoffs into local creeks and rivers that are now near levels not seen since a drought that struck the region from 1964-1966.
''If a tropical storm comes up, flash flooding is a very typical outcome,'' said Watson. ''They can drop five inches of rain in an hour. I don't care how low creeks are, they'll be overwhelmed by that sort of rainfall.''
The National Hurricane Center in Miami is forecasting an above average season, with more than the average 10 ''named'' tropical storms, five or six of which become hurricanes. One forecaster has called for 14 tropical storms, including nine hurricanes -- three of them intense storms with winds of 111 mph or more.
Until the hurricane season begins, Mid-Atlantic towns and farms were unlikely to see much more than a smattering of thunderstorms.
Rainfall is 18 inches below normal in some areas, draining water reservoirs and leaving bodies of water such as the Potomac River with less than half their normal flow.
Maryland officials say the reservoirs that provide drinking water to 1.8 million people in Baltimore are a month away from running dry and have urged the city to begin taking water from the Susquehanna River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay about 40 miles to the northeast.
"Some areas in the mid-Atlantic are seeing their worst drought in 105 years of record-keeping,'' said Mike Hayes, climate impact specialist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The region's problems began in July 1998, which marked the start of one of driest six-month periods on record. Then came a pronounced lack of rainfall in May and, finally, a July heat wave that has been blamed for more than 150 deaths.
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