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When disaster strikes America, a more skilled response

The Oklahoma tornado is the latest bout of extreme weather to require an all-out emergency response. Quick and efficient, the reaction in Moore, Okla., points to a nation getting better at coping with natural disasters.

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It was essentially a small army mobilized at a moment's notice and almost seamlessly synchronized. At one staging area, the fire crew from Morgans Corner learned from an organizational chart that its job was to sling more than 1,000 burgers a day to hungry police officers and firefighters at the official barbecue pit. At the Home Depot, Debbie Cunningham oversees Official Support Function-11 – which, put in simpler terms, is a lost and found for pets.

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None of this comes without extensive coordination and training.

"There's a lot of planning that goes into preparedness and being ready to respond.... For Oklahoma, this is the No. 1 hazard and there are set functions that have to be performed.... You have to know who's going to do them, and you have to drill them. And the result is that the state is very much on top when something happens," says Professor McEntire. "They don't really need to go look at the plan to figure out what to do. It's a well-oiled machine."

Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma's emergency management director, puts it in folksier terms: "We have a saying in Oklahoma: 'You don't hand out business cards at disaster scenes' – meaning that everybody not only knows each other but has worked with each other in the past. Everybody knows what role they play."

Those were not sentiments associated with federal disaster coordination in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is an integral part of the Moore relief effort. Three of its search-and-rescue teams were on the ground the morning after, and the agency had sent a liaison to the state's emergency-response center the day before the tornadoes hit.

For Mike Ebert, vice president for communications with the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, that speaks to fundamental changes within FEMA. In the past, he felt that federal officials had little interest in how to marshal his group's capabilities, which range from bringing in roof tarps to providing child care. But with the arrival of current FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate in 2009, that began to change.

"We noticed right away an increase in communication and a real desire on FEMA's side to say, 'Hey, we have all these resources here from Southern Baptist, let's take advantage of it and let them know we're really counting on them,' " Mr. Ebert says.

One notable change is that FEMA has invited his organization and others to send a representative to Washington to participate in twice-a-day briefings about the logistics of what is needed and where.

"The federal government realizes that the private organizations that are actively seeking to serve those affected by disaster have a role, and it's important that we work together," says Ron Busroe, development secretary for the Salvation Army, which also has a seat at the FEMA briefings. "We have different roles ... but we work in collaboration. It's a good thing."

This refined ability to respond quickly to dis-aster – positioning resources where they might be most needed – has increasingly been shaped by the ability to forecast with certainty where extreme weather will strike.

Take the Columbus Day storm of 1962. It was the strongest nontropical cyclone to hit the US during the past 100 years, battering a stretch of Pacific coastline from northern California to British Columbia with winds gusting to 150 miles per hour.

"If you look at The Seattle Times the day before, they were talking about 'partly cloudy' or something," says Cliff Mass, professor of meteorology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Thanks to better computer modeling and weather satellites, meteorologists began to get nearly all the big storms right in the 1990s – first, with forecasts a few days ahead of time, then, in the case of Sandy, four to six days ahead of time, notes Dr. Mass.


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