CHICAGO A heat wave baking the central and southern United States was blamed on Wednesday for at least 22 deaths this week as forecasters warned that the abnormally hot weather could last into August as it moves east.
The National Weather Service said 141 million people in more than two dozen states were under a heat advisory or warning because of the soaring temperatures, the most recent in a series of heat waves that have scorched the country's midsection off and on since late May.
In Wichita, Kansas, where temperatures have reached 100 degrees or more on 24 days so far this year, forecasters warned that the mercury would hit at least 100 degrees each day through next Tuesday.
"It's just draining, physically draining," said Chris Vaccaro, a Weather Service spokesman.
AccuWeather.com predicted the effects of the current heat wave -- in terms of stress on the power grid, damage to roads and bridges, and lost lives -- could eclipse the effects of the deadly heat wave of the summer of 1995, which claimed hundreds of lives in Chicago alone.
"When all is said and done, with the number of days of extreme heat and humidity of the current heat wave, it may be more significant and impact a larger area," said AccuWeather's Jim Andrews.
Hospitals in Wichita treated 25 heat-related illnesses, according to the National Weather Service. In Des Moines, Iowa, 16 people have been hospitalized because of this week's high temperatures.
The high heat and humidity have been stressing U.S. crops, particularly corn, which is now in a key growth stage when heat and moisture can cut final yields.
Grain traders in Chicago and Kansas City also said the drought and heat in the Plains was beginning to cause concern about the fate of next year's output of hard red winter wheat crop, the primary bread wheat of the United States, which is grown in a parched swath from Texas to South Dakota.
Farmers plant that crop each autumn and harvest the following summer. But if rains did not come soon, farmers may not plant wheat because of the powdery dry soil.
The prolonged brutal heat was also endangering livestock. Up to 1,500 cattle have died in South Dakota because of the heat wave, according to the state's veterinarian, Dustin Oedekoven, and he expects that number to rise.
"The weather is certainly extraordinary," Oedekoven said, adding that high day-time heat and humidity with little relief at night has made it "a challenge to keep livestock comfortable."
In Wisconsin, dairy farmers like Dave Daniels, the owner of Mighty Grand Dairy farm in Kenosha County, were blaming the prolonged heat for a drop in his herd's milk production.
In Indianapolis, homeowners were being asked to stop watering their lawns through at least Sunday.
"We are asking our customers to curtail lawn-watering activities in order to maintain adequate water pressure for our customers and firefighting activities," said Matthew Klein, executive director of the Indianapolis Department of Waterworks, owner of Indianapolis Water.
(Reporting by Karin Matz, Sam Nelson, Bob Burgdorfer, Meredith Davis, Steve Olafson, Tim Ghianni, Kevin Murphy, Daniel Lovering, Susan Guyett and Brendan O'Brien; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton)