In 1999, the United States was racked by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and winter storms. By measure of damage inflicted, it was one of the worst years this decade.
But nature's fury brought an unexpected upside. It helped the nation's emergency-response system prepare for a man-made calamity that could be far worse: Y2K. Officials at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for rapid Y2K reaction, say their wheels are well greased as a result of a busy year.
"We always learn by practicing and exercising," says Bob Adamcik, FEMA's deputy associate director. "When we respond to a live event, it puts us at peak performance."
For three years, FEMA officials have been preparing for, among other concerns, explosions, power outages, and meltdowns at nuclear plants. Disasters could happen at the rollover of the clocks - when the year becomes "00" - due to computer problems, terrorism, or general panic.
At FEMA's Washington headquarters and at 10 regional offices nationwide, an around-the-clock state of alert began yesterday. Also, a national representative will be in each state to work with local officials if necessary. In an emergency situation, FEMA can dispense assistance from 26 national agencies and the American Red Cross directly to affected areas.
So far, a general feeling of optimism is palpable in FEMA's offices, which are not far from the National Mall, where President Clinton will attend a New Year's Eve celebration.
"Right now, there are no key areas that indicate there [will be] emergency needs," says Bruce Baughman, the agency's director for response and recovery.
During 1999, however, there was little reason to be optimistic - at least in terms of national crises. Mr. Clinton declared 50 major disasters in 37 states plus the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean. During the year, records were set for hurricane disaster declarations (19) and the most declarations caused by a single hurricane (Floyd, 13).
From January on, there were winter storms in the South. In May, tornadoes damaged Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. And late this summer, in perhaps the worst disaster of the year, flooding devastated the southern Atlantic coast. Meanwhile, emergency-level fires raged in 10 states.
On the year, more than 273,180 people asked for federal assistance because of declared disasters. Nearly 80 percent of them suffered hurricane losses.
Some of the natural calamities were chalked up to La Nia, a phenomenon that came in the summer of 1998, in which a giant pool of cool water forms in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The coolness of La Nia affects the global circulation patterns, which can lead to sharp changes in temperature - and hurricanes.
Each year has its share of disasters, but 1999 will be remembered for "hurricane activity that was above normal," says Ants Leetmaa, director of the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in Maryland.
Officials at FEMA say they are ready to act in the same manner whether they face a Y2K problem or a natural disaster.
At their central command office here, workers prepare for the big day by giving out last-minute advice to state representatives and familiarizing themselves with the relevant contact numbers throughout the country.
They pay little attention to a large board hung on the wall that lists each region and things that could go wrong there: transportation, communication, public works, fire, and others. On this day, the board is all green, meaning there are no problems at the moment. Red markers lay ready on the side.
But the outlook is already positive for Jan. 1 - and there is one less thing FEMA has to worry about. "The forecast is relatively benign," says Mr. Leetmaa from the Climate Prediction Center. "But a Pacific Northwest storm could be coming next week..."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society