In July of 1989, a family of fierce tornadoes swirled into Hamden, Connecticut. More than 40 buildings were destroyed. Power and phone lines were downed, and hundreds of uprooted trees and severed branches blocked most major roadways.

A tornado in Connecticut is as rare as a snowstorm in south Florida. But thanks to a well-organized emergency response plan, Hamden's town leaders and emergency workers were prepared. They handled the disaster with a minimum of confusion and outside help. Nobody was killed or seriously injured. And within days of the twisters, the town's usual peaceful atmosphere was restored.

Natural disasters can't be prevented. Often, they can't even be predicted. Phenomena such as earthquakes and tornadoes strike suddenly. Hurricanes can abruptly change course. An afternoon shower can turn into flooding rains. Harmless snow storms can explode into mighty blizzards.

Relief Agencies

There are several state, federal, and private agencies standing by to help communities when disaster strikes. But these organizations, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross, can take days to arrive at the scene.

In the most critical early phase of a disaster, a community will usually have to rely on its own resources to handle acute problems. The seriously injured must be rescued and treated. Fires must be extinguished. Threatened neighborhoods must be evacuated. And it's vital that local emergency forces prepare themselves with regular drills and exercises.

"Until we had serious floods, in 1982, our emergency plans were gathering dust in someone's office. We thought nothing could ever happen to us," says Hamden's deputy fire chief, Walter MacDowell. "We were totally unprepared for those floods. But after that, we made sure we knew what we were doing. When the tornadoes hit, we were ready."

Is your community vulnerable to a natural disaster? How well would your community cope? What can you do to help?

Any community can be prepared. And by understanding what your community is doing — or should be doing — to brace for disaster, you can become an important part of your community's preparedness effort.

Community Plan

Every community in America has a disaster response plan. And you can learn about the plan in your area by contacting the officials in charge of local emergency preparedness.

If you live in a large community, chances are there's an emergency preparedness office in your town. Smaller communities coordinate these services through the police or fire department. You can also get in touch with the emergency preparedness office in your state capital, or with FEMA via their website.

Emergency preparedness officials can tell you what they've been doing to prepare for disasters. But even more important, they can help you understand what you can do to prepare yourself.