The heat wave sweeping through the South has been blamed for at least 33 deaths this month and created potentially ruinous drought conditions.
Relentless sunshine has sent temperatures to record highs across the region, topping 100 degrees in some areas for the 10th straight day. Temperatures soared in Tennessee, where late-afternoon readings reached 109 in Smyrna, 105 in Clarksville and 103 in Nashville. Huntsville, Ala., North Little Rock, Ark., Bowling Green, Ky., and Woodward, Okla., also hit 103.
A 53-year-old man was found dead in his apartment Wednesday in Memphis, raising the number of heat-related deaths in that city to eight, officials said. One of them was a 67-year-old woman who was visiting the city for the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. She died Wednesday at a recreational vehicle park near Graceland.
So far this month, nine people have died from heat-related causes in Tennessee and Missouri each, while four apiece have died in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia; and one apiece in Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina. The Missouri Health Department said seven more heat-related deaths had been reported but not yet confirmed.
The Southern death toll does not include two illegal immigrants who were also believed to have succumbed to the heat after their bodies were found Thursday morning in the desert near Ocotillo, Ariz., NBC affiliate KYMA of Yuma reported.
Students, animals at risk
Alabama officials were considering alternatives to transporting students to schools on un-air-conditioned buses. The temperature inside one bus registered 122 degrees as it returned from its route Thursday afternoon in Montgomery, where the official high was 102.
“It’s almost unbearable,” the bus’ driver, Kim Norman, told NBC affiliate WSFA. “I’ve had students with bloody noses and throwing up because of the heat.”
The dog days of summer can also be a dangerous time for man’s best friend. Montgomery animal control officials told WSFA that they were investigating the deaths of eight dogs, all of whom appeared to be victims of the heat.
“If a dog is out in the heat, it can dehydrate fast,” Humane Officer Ron VanHerwyn said. “It’s terrible for an animal.”
Drought creeps farther around the region
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that drought conditions had reached an “exceptional” level across Alabama, western Georgia, southern Tennessee and northern Alabama.
Alabama was worst-hit, NBC affiliate WPMI of Huntsville reported. Dusty, dry conditions created by the drought covered more than 73 percent of the state from the Florida to the Tennessee state lines.
NOAA forecast that the drought would persist in northern and central Alabama through November and warned that it could spread as far north as Ohio and as far west as Missouri.
Police in several cities reported a rise in thefts of air conditioners, some of which were being snatched out from windows.
The air conditioner at Joliff United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, Va., was stolen Wednesday night, police said. The church canceled activities in the building until a replacement could be installed as temperatures were forecast to hit 99 Thursday.
“We have no air in this room,” the Rev. Waverly Smith told NBC affiliate WAVY. “We’ve got one, two, three, four and five fans blowing, and it’s unbearable.”
Smith held out hope that the air conditioner was being put to good use. "Maybe they were taking it to Grandma who doesn’t have any air conditioning and getting her to be safe through the heat,” he said.
NFL team throws in the towel
Officials warned residents in the South to stay indoors if they could. Strenuous activities were considered especially dangerous.
Some golfers in Atlanta ignored the warning, although they told NBC News they were keeping an eye on the thermometer, which hit 98 Thursday.
“Makes you tired real quick,” golfer Gary Yelton acknowledged. “You’ve got to be careful — don’t get too hot, drink plenty of water and you can still have fun at it.”
But the New Orleans Saints football team played it safe, closing its training camp a day early in Jackson, Miss., where it was 99 degrees, and heading to Cincinnati, where it was a relatively cool 93.
NBC’s Jay Gray reported from Memphis. NBC affiliates in Atlanta (WXIA); Columbia, S.C. (WIS); Dallas (KXAS) and Austin, Texas (KXAN); Huntsville (WPMI) and Montgomery, Ala. (WSFA); Norfolk, Va. (WAVY); St. Louis (KSDK); and Yuma, Ariz. (KYMA), contributed to this report.