Building the Force to Tackle Disasters

Robin A. Barnes, Executive Vice President & COO, Greater New Orleans, Inc.
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Robin A. Barnes, Executive Vice President & COO, Greater New Orleans, Inc.

Fifteen years ago the nation experienced a horrific act of terrorism. The havoc wreaked by the events on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent emergency response and recovery efforts served as a turning point, transforming the way in which this country approaches disaster management and long term rebuilding efforts. Events such as 9/11 attack and subsequent disasters such as  such as Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, Hurricane Sandy, and now, back in my home state, the Louisiana Floods, have advanced a cadre of disaster. Resilience professionals serving in roles in the public and private sectors ensure that we are prepared for and can recover from the next disaster.  

Unless you worked for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the American Red Cross, there was no major disaster recovery employer in 2001. Major disasters tended to be very localized and infrequent and therefore it was not financially sustainable for firms to specialize in, nor hire permanent employees for disaster recovery. In 2001, there were few, if any, college degree programs or professional certifications that were associated with disaster recovery. When I graduated from college in 1982, a career in disaster recovery was not even remotely under consideration for my future.

  Students can now pursue degree and certificate programs in disaster and resilience management and have identified career paths accordingly 

Today, that is different. The increasingly catastrophic nature of the disasters have necessitated new policies, programs, and innovations to prepare for disaster management while being able to build resiliency in the face of catastrophic events. A generation of thought leaders and practitioners has emerged to inform and do this important work. A new professional field has spawned, and some new trends are developing:  

1. The field of disaster and resilience management has professionalized. FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute, Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy, and the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii are examples of education and training programs. These institutions are preparing public and private sector disaster management professionals in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery; urban planning; environmental management; addressing the needs of vulnerable populations; social media management; building resilience; and more. Students can now pursue degree and certificate programs in disaster and resilience management and have identified career paths accordingly.  

2. The multifaceted impacts of disasters have expanded the “sector” to include specializations in Economic Resilience; Emergency Management; Coastal Restoration and Water Management; Technology; Homeland Security and First Response; Community Preparedness; Social Vulnerability; Long-Term Intervention; Public Health; Business Continuity; Finance and Insurance; and all aspects of disaster resilience, response, recovery, and mitigation. Disasters are no longer addressed in siloes: In New Orleans, for example, engineers, designers, economic development professionals, public officials, and nonprofit leaders are collaborating to help the city manage its water resources so that as we address flooding and subsidence through the green infrastructure. We are building resilience and creating economic opportunity by ensuring that our businesses and residents have jobs doing that work.  

3. Disaster and resilience professionals do not just include emergency managers and first responders. Those who now make up the field include business leaders; architects, designers and planners; organizers; doctors and public health officials; social justice leaders; educators; and economic development professionals. A new occupation has emerged out of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative with Chief Resilience Officers now situated at City Halls in cities from New Orleans to London and Singapore. Serving as top-level advisors reporting directly to their respective city’s mayor, their task is to “establish a compelling resilience vision for his or her city, working across departments and with the local community to maximize innovation and minimize the impact of unforeseen events.” 

4. The private sector has realized how to partner with government to innovate new technologies and deliver an array of services from disaster cleanup to coastal restoration to urban water management. Career path-focused jobs are available for these projects, and companies that have developed areas or expertise and specialization are able to deploy their services to other communities, making those jobs permanent.  

5. Professional networks, associations and conferences engage professionals with each other and expose them to best practices, lessons learned, and career opportunities. The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) is an international non-profit organization of emergency management professionals with an annual conference and other activities and programs. RES/CON New Orleans is an annual international conference on the practice of successful resiliency and disaster management in an evolving global environment that is attended by disaster and resilience practitioners from around the world. 

6. Technology, data and media are key for managing and communicating about disasters and resilience, thereby opening up new professional opportunities for professionals who are trained in these fields.  

In an ever evolving global atmosphere of political and environmental change, we know we can count on the next disaster. However, instead of reacting to them only when they come, we are moving toward being able to get ahead of them. But in order to do that, we need the trained professionals who are able to set policy and design and implement solutions. There are jobs associated with disasters and resilience that accommodate a diversity of low, middle and high skilled workers. The new trends in education and professional training in this sphere has changed the trajectory of disaster and resilience management, providing real confidence in our ability to address these severe challenges in our future.

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