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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Part of the success with preparing for Sandy stemmed from forecasters' use of a powerful computer model in Europe. Now, National Weather Service computers are being upgraded with money from Sandy relief. Meteorologists hope to be able to make more accurate forecasts as far as 16 days in advance. Of special interest, Mass says, are forecasts in the seven- to 14-day range. That could help forecasters forewarn Western dam operators when currents of warm, moist air flow in from the Pacific, bringing heavy rains. With more time to lower water levels in their reservoirs, the dam operators could improve flood control, he says.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Facing the devastation of the Oklahoma tornadoes
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Improvements in longer-term forecasting mirror improvements in the minute-by-minute forecasts crucial to tornado warnings. In the mid-1960s, the average warning time for a tornado was three minutes after it touched down. On May 20, the National Weather Service issued a warning covering Moore 16 minutes before touchdown, and it took the tornado another 20 minutes to arrive, essentially giving residents 36 minutes' warning.
For Moore residents, that was an eternity. Most people in the tract-house neighborhood off Telephone Road, near the epicenter of destruction, simply left. Some drove out of the strike zone; others went to fast-food restaurants, whose walk-in coolers are nearly bombproof and bolted to the ground.
"Seventeen minutes is plenty of time to get a long way from the path of a tornado," says Thomas Grazulis, a tornado historian in St. Johnsbury, Vt.
"Yeah, people just leave. That's what I do," says Todd Smith, whose home was barely grazed by the May 20 tornado. "You watch the track, you listen to the warnings, and you make the call and go. That's why everybody buys tornado insurance, so you can go back, pick up the pieces, and rebuild."
How they rebuild, however, remains a weak point in America's disaster preparedness, some say. Many communities strengthen building codes after natural disasters, much like Florida did in 2002 after a series of hurricanes hit in the 1990s. That process is also now taking place in the area wrecked by Sandy last October.
But, at the same time, there is a desire to rebuild as quickly as possible. Some individuals either don't have the money to meet new standards or don't want to spend it. And some officials say safety is up to each individual, not something to be imposed.
Moore's mayor has said he will push to make storm shelters mandatory in home construction. But when Moore was hit by an even stronger tornado in 1999, that decision was left in the hands of homeowners.
There's an ad hoc quality to how various communities respond. After a giant tornado hit Parkersburg, Iowa, in 2008, many residents added storm shelters. But the town of about 1,900 people did not change its building code to require them. As a result, the high school, rebuilt after the storm, has a shelter with thick concrete walls and a reinforced concrete ceiling. But the elementary school, which was not damaged, does not have a similar shelter.
After Florida was hit by severe hurricanes, engineers designed better ways to keep roofs attached to buildings.
"Hopefully Moore and other cities will look at the best way to rebuild for property and building protection," says Nancy Kete, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, noting that it's equally as vital for communities to focus on protecting people.
• Staff writers Mark Guarino, Pete Spotts, and Ron Scherer contributed to this report.
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