I'm interested in disaster prediction, response and recovery. Here I've aggregated some resources for those curious about the whole spectrum of disasters in society.
If a link is broken please let me know.
NOAA is the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It is under the Department of Commerce. The three parts relevant to severe weather are:
Storm Prediction Center (SPC): There is just one office, in Norman, OK (affiliated with UO), and it operates within the National Weather Service (NWS). They issue 'watches' for the entire country. A watch is a notice that some hazard is possible or likely in a particular area. Only the SPC is allowed to issue watches, even though the NWS has offices all over the country, because the NWS offices only monitor their regional conditions. The SPC, with its national coverage, can monitor synoptic (large-scale) systems that evolve over the area of many states, and so the SPC can predict behavior that a local NWS office might miss. Watches can be for severe thunderstorms, flooding, excessive heat, fire weather, etc. The exception to their watch authority I believe is tropical storm/hurricane watches, which are issued by the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
The SPC also tracks wind, hail and tornado reports across the country, from local NWS offices, the public, and trained SkyWarn observers. You can see these reports so far for today, here: http://www.spc.noaa.gov/climo/reports/today.html.
National Weather Service (NWS): There are 122 local forecast offices. They are in charge of issuing warnings. A warning (tornado warning, severe thunderstorm warning, flash flood warning) is much more urgent than a watch. It means that either A) such an event has been observed already, or B) conditions are such that an event is extremely likely to happen, very soon. It is up to these local offices to issue warnings because the staff know their particular region much better. Also, it makes more sense to a local office, upon hearing a report of a tornado sighting, to immediately issue a warning publicly, than to pass that critical info back to a national office and wait for a response. Warnings often occur in much smaller areas than do watches. When a tornado watch is issued by the SPC, people should be prepared to shelter in a basement -- when a tornado warning is issued, they should be in that basement.
National Hurricane Center (NHC): The NHC tracks "invests", which are regions of convection and possible circulation, and ranks how likely they may develop into tropical cyclones. The NHC issues forecasts based on the results of complex numerical models that try to predict where a tropical cyclone will go and with what intensity. They study tropical disturbances and issue watches/warnings in the North Atlantic and the North East Pacific. Note: a hurricane, typhoon and tropical cyclone are all the same physical phemonenon, and the name only changes based on the Tropical Cyclone Warning Center responsible for tracking the storm. For the US, the evolution of a disturbance is described below:
A disturbance, caused by an African Easterly Wave or other tropical weather anomaly, may get labeled an --> Invest, which means it has characteristics that generally precede a --> Tropical Depression (TD), with wind speeds up to 38 mph. If it strengthens, it becomes a --> Tropical Storm (TS), which is a weak hurricane/tropical cyclone. This is the point at which the storm becomes a 'named storm', like Katrina or Ike. If the tropical storm strengthens to 74 mph or higher, the NHC calls it a proper --> Hurricane, ranked on the Saffir-Simpson scale from 1-5. Category 3+ hurricanes are considered Major Hurricanes.
Any of these stages, upon landfall, will bring rain. Even though all of these stages are classified based on 10-min wind speeds, that isn't nearly the only scale to indicate damage. Generally the greatest damage is caused by water (storm surge and/or flooding). Storm surge is a strong function of windspeed, but flooding has a lot more to do with which quadrant of the storm you're under, how long the storm sits over you, and how big it is. TS Debby was pretty weak but it just sat right off of the Florida Panhandle for days, leading to a flooding event that exceeded a 100 year return period.
The word hurricane is only used in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific. Elsewhere in the world these storms are called typhoons and cyclones, and the generic scientific term is tropical cyclone.
You can take free classes on the National Incident Management System (NIMS) which is the federal framework for incident management. Start with Incident Command System (ICS) 100 and 200. If you are an Emergency Medical Technician or higher, you can volunteer through the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) on a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT). There are teams throughout the country, affiliated with particular regions in each state, that deploy nationally on a rotating basis to assist in large-scale disaster response. EMTs+ can also volunteer with Team Rubicon, an excellent nonprofit that deploys skilled military veterans to disasters around the US and the world. If you aren't a medical professional but still want to deploy to disaster responses, you can join the Red Cross (abroad: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies).
Consider joining or starting a local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
Hartman, C. W., & Squires, G. D. There is no such thing as a natural disaster: race, class and Hurricane Katrina. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Mooney, Chris. Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. HMH, 2008. Print.