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Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press
Kathryn Sullivan, first American woman to walk in space, and deputy administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gestures as she speaks in Norman, Okla., Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. Nearly 200 experts from a variety of fields participated in "Weather Ready Nation: A Vital Conversation, " a three-day conference at the National Weather Center in Norman, Okla.

NORMAN, Okla. — Following one of the deadliest and costliest years for weather outbreaks in recent history, weather specialists joined Thursday with experts from a variety of fields as part of an effort to improve the nation's resiliency to severe weather.

Nearly 200 professionals, including social scientists, building engineers, emergency managers and academics, participated in the three-day conference at the National Weather Center titled "Weather Ready Nation: A Vital Conversation."

"That group of critical individuals in the entire decision chain, the entire warning process, is quite extensive," said Russell Schneider, director of the Storm Prediction Center. "They all have different roles."

Extreme weather in the U.S. in 2011 has killed more than 1,000 people, and caused more than $52 billion in damage, according to estimates from the National Weather Service. Those figures are sobering for people like Schneider, whose job is to forecast severe weather like violent thunderstorms and tornadoes.

"The United States tornado warning communication system has been developing since the late 1940s, early 1950s, and we've made tremendous progress in reduction of loss of life from tornadoes," Schneider said. "But this year we lost over 550 individuals to tornadoes, which is the most since 1936, which is very sobering for all of us."

While there have been tremendous advances in weather forecasting technology in recent years, that information still must be relayed to the citizens who need it, when they need it, in order for it to be effective. That's part of the reason so many different stakeholders were brought together for this week's workshop, Schneider said.

"We were aware of the major tornado outbreak that killed over 300 in the southeast on April 27th. We were raising the alarm almost five days in advance," Schneider said. "They all were raising the alarm and yet 300 people died."

Part of the solution is making sure that people in the path of violent and destructive storms not only know the weather event is coming, but how to respond, said Keith Stammer, emergency management director for Jasper County and Joplin, Mo., where an EF5 twister packing 200 mph winds tore the community on May 22 and killed 161 people.

"Regardless of what befalls you, there's only two things you can do — run or hide," Stammer said. "The tragic side of it is that we apparently had several people who knew what to do, did the right thing, and then were either injured or even killed as a result of the EF-5.

"What that makes us do is go back and try to redouble our efforts."

Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy