The drought of 1988 was the nation's worst natural disaster on record, causing an estimated $30 billion in agricultural losses, and its related heat wave contributed to 10,000 deaths, researchers reported.
"If these data are correct, it's the No. 1 natural disaster in this country," said John A. Dracup, a civil engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is developing ways to assess drought severity.The second worst was the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 8, 1900, killing 6,000 people, Dracup said.
Norman Rosenberg of Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C., said more bad news is on the way.
"The drought of 1988 is not over," he said. "A large portion of the country still remains vulnerable. If we have a dry spring, we could have a very serious situation."
Rosenberg and Dracup were among a panel of experts who gathered at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to assess the effects of the drought.
Stanley A. Changnon of the Illinois State Water Survey, who has tried to tally the damages, said the drought was slightly less severe in area and intensity than the droughts of 1932-1936 and 1953-1956.
Nevertheless, 70 percent of the nation experienced "extensively warm and dry conditions," he said. Wheat, corn and soybean production fell by 30 percent to 40 percent.
Agricultural losses throughout the United States totaled $30 billion even though all the damage has not yet been tallied, including the drought's effect on feed development, the livestock industry and the consumer, who faces an increase of 2 percent to 4 percent in food prices, Changnon said.