DROUGHT:

St. Louis on pace to shatter July heat records; 23 deaths reported so far

Updated at 12:23 p.m. EDT.

The worst heat wave in a half-century is turning Missouri into a kind of Dante's Inferno, where all 114 of the state's counties and St. Louis have been declared disaster areas due to severe drought and more than three weeks with consecutive days of 90-plus degrees Fahrenheit.

While the economic toll to the state's agriculture sector could reach into the billions of dollars, the pain is also being acutely felt in Missouri's cities. As of yesterday, the St. Louis metropolitan area had recorded 23 heat-related deaths, while investigators in Kansas City suspected heat was a factor in at least seven deaths there.

Earlier this week, St. Louis Health Director Pam Walker appealed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help coordinate a national response plan to the public health crisis being fueled by excessive heat.

"It is an emergency," Walker told local Fox television affiliate KTVI. She said a federal response to the crisis, including a tracking system for heat-related fatalities and establishment of a standard definition for "heat death," could help government and health officials coordinate response plans.

St. Louis' record for heat-related deaths came in 1980, when 153 people died in a blast of July heat. Many of those deaths were attributed to physically weak and elderly people living in non-air-conditioned homes and apartments.

The city is on pace to shatter its record for consecutive days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Nine of the first 18 days in July saw temperature readings soar to 100 degrees or higher, and the last day in the city below 90 degrees was June 26.

With an eye toward not repeating 1980's heat crisis, Mayor Francis Slay this month implemented a new severe weather public health protection program to try to stem a problem that seemed to be growing larger by the day. As part of that effort, nearly 50 public buildings -- including community centers and libraries -- have been designated as cooling centers where people can take shelter from the heat.

Walker, the public health director, described the region's erratic weather -- including severe storms and periods of extreme heat -- as "the new norm" that will require a shift in priorities. "We should come to expect it every year, and we will dedicate more time and resources to plan for these types of situations all year long," she said.

Spontaneous fires, low river levels

In addition to risk from heat stress, drought conditions combined with high heat have turned much of Missouri into a tinderbox. Officials at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska have ranked Missouri as having the highest fire risk in the nation.

Hundreds of blazes have been reported across the state, including a barn fire in northern Missouri that officials believe was caused by the spontaneous combustion of dry hay, according to an Associated Press report.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) placed the State Emergency Management Agency on alert to help coordinate response from professional and volunteer fire departments as well as natural resources and conservation officials.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is keeping close watch on the Mississippi River, which is about 12 feet below normal levels at St. Louis and will likely drop an additional 1 to 2 feet over the coming week, said Mike Petersen, chief of public affairs for the corps' St. Louis District.

Petersen said the Coast Guard has not restricted river traffic to date but added that corps survey boats and dredges are already working parts of the river where vessels risk hitting shoals.

Below St. Louis, Petersen said that conditions "are getting a little bit more difficult" for barges and other vessels to navigate, but that the dredging and water-controlling weirs in the St. Louis area allow traffic to move even if water drops below zero on the corps' St. Louis gauge. As of yesterday, the gauge was reading about 3 feet.

Take me out to the ballgame (later)

As Missouri continued to swelter under 100-degree heat, conditions were equally dire on the east side of the Mississippi, where Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) on Monday visited a farm in Waltonville to draw attention to the plight of farmers, calling agriculture "the backbone of Illinois' economy."

Quinn has requested federal disaster relief for 33 Illinois counties, mostly in the southern reaches of the state. The governor's office has also established an online repository for information about drought conditions and relief efforts.

The two heat-strapped states will also test the endurance of their professional athletes this weekend as the St. Louis Cardinals host their division rival Chicago Cubs over a three-game series at Busch Stadium. At least one of those games, on Saturday, was rescheduled from 3:15 to 6:15 p.m., but a team spokesman said the rescheduling was due to television schedule change, not the weather forecast.

The official, Ron Watermon, said the team has taken measures to protect fans and players from heat-related illness, including distributing free water and providing misting stations around the ballpark. The team also adds emergency medical staff on high heat days and provides training to ballpark employees to help them identify the signs of heat stress in fans and colleagues.

He said that at recent home games, the stadium's first aid centers treated an estimated 50 people per game, but many of those seeking treatment were stadium employees. "That's just part of baseball in St. Louis. It's a hot, humid place in the summertime," he said.