Debris is strewn around a damaged home Saturday in Bridgeton, Mo., following a tornado the night before. (Jeff Roberson)

President Obama overnight signed an emergency declaration for the state of Alabama following deadly tornadoes that have killed more than 170 people across the South.

Obama’s orders permit the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin coordinating the federal government’s response to the storms and to provide assistance to state officials.


Obama spoke with Gov. Robert Bentley (R-Ala.) last evening, according to the White House. FEMA is now deploying federal liaisons to assist state officials in the disaster response. It will also mobilize other equipment and personnel as requested by the governor, according to the agency.

The Washington region is also experiencing severe weather Thursday morning with tornado and flash flood watches in effect.

It’s been a record-setting weather month across the country, with deadly floods, storms and tornadoes battering the Midwest and South. Other federal emergencies are currently active in North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Ironically, federal officials are scheduled today to closely monitor a multi-state earthquake drill. Alabama and 10 other states — Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee have been preparing for the Great Central U.S. Shakeout, a dress rehearsal for how families, schools, universities and businesses might respond if a major earthquake struck along the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

The drills — scheduled to begin at 10:15 a.m. CT — involve mostly schools and businesses and will instruct people to “duck, cover and hold” in the event of a major quake. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are scheduled to participate in a drill at a St. Louis school.

Millions of people live along the fault zone, and the drill coincides with the bicentennial of major earthquakes in the New Madrid Zone that struck in 1811 and 1812, some of the largest experienced east of the Rockies. Though the magnitude of the shakes was never recorded, seismologists estimate they would have registered greater than a 7 on the Richter Scale and caused widespread shaking.

There remains a 25 to 40 percent chance of an earthquake greater than 6.0-magnitude striking the New Madrid zone in the next 50 years, according to Mike Blanpied, associate coordinator of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program. He said there’s a 1 in 10 chance of it being 7.0 or greater.

The states participating today “have a sizable seismic hazard but not a high level of seismic awareness,” Blanpied said. “So we’re using the occasion of the bicentennial to have a series of events to raise awareness of the nature of earthquakes and why they can be damaging to people.”

“Most people will survive an earthquake just fine, but the problem is that afterwards life can be so disrupted,” Blanpied said in an interview Wednesday. “Envision yourself without power, water and sewers. The folks in New Zealand [still recovering from an earthquake in February] haven’t been able to flush their toilets in months. It can be tremendously disruptive.”

Organizers are also hoping that people unaccustomed to discussing earthquake planning will remember simple things to do in advance: Establish a family plan on where to meet after a quake, businesses should establish contingency plans, parents should move heavy furniture away from a child’s bed in case it were to fall over, and ensure that new homes are always bolted to their foundations.

Similar drills are scheduled for October in Nevada and Guam and the program may spread to other states in the future. The results of today’s drill will be taken into account next month when FEMA, USGS and dozens of states, local and federal agencies participate in a similar rehearsal for how they would respond to a mult-state disaster.

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