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Achieving resilience through flexibility

Originally posted on Georgia Sea Grant’s Student Blog


By: María Mercedes Carruthers Ferrero,
Knauss Fellow,
Federal Emergency Management Agency National Hazard Mitigation Planning Program


A love of law, science, and the coast led me to the Knauss Fellowship and my placement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Hazard Mitigation Planning Program. I am a UGA Law School graduate and am privileged to represent Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant in the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship.


“FEMA flexible” is a phrase I have heard many times throughout my Knauss Fellowship. It refers to the importance of working with and around unexpected circumstances; in particular, when serving communities before, during and after disasters. This flexibility also gives way to creative solutions. During the fellowship, this philosophy has been useful when confronted with new experiences, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the technological challenges associated with teleworking. I have learned that the mindset alluded to by this phrase is not only key to achieving community resilience, but to personal and professional success.


By allowing yourself to confront challenges and new experiences with an open mind, you can achieve personal growth and make the most of experiences. This flexibility also allows you to better work with other disciplines, cultures and work styles. My professional journey and current fellowship experience have confirmed my preference for interdisciplinary work. Learning from, and collaborating with, subject matter experts in a wide variety of disciplines makes for a dynamic and fulfilling work environment. In my current role with FEMA, I have had the privilege to learn from coastal engineers, community planners, emergency officers, coastal managers, policy advisors, communication specialists, data analysts, attorneys and others.


Interdisciplinary collaboration and the development of flexible solutions are essential for coastal communities to equitably adapt to a changing climate and ultimately achieve resilience. Working with the National Mitigation Planning Program at FEMA headquarters, I have learned the importance of planning. As described on the Program’s website: “It begins with state, tribal and local governments identifying natural disaster risks and vulnerabilities that are common in their area. After identifying these risks, they develop long-term strategies for protecting people and property from similar events. Mitigation plans are key to breaking the cycle of disaster damage and reconstruction.” Inclusive public engagement and holistic strategies lead to more effective mitigation actions. The planning process can be used as a conduit to gather different sectors of the community and multiple disciplines to address important risks and chart a path towards the future.


My fellowship has also allowed me to grow as an attorney. By immersing myself in federal agency work, I have directly observed the impact that laws, regulations and policies have on agencies and communities. For example, recent presidential executive orders on climate and equity have spurred intra- and interagency action. This, in turn, has led to more focused agency priorities and requests for public input. Laws impact communities and communities impact laws. Understanding this is important to ensure that law is not formed or practiced in a vacuum. Legal and policy decisions can directly impact society and should be directly shaped by the communities they are meant to serve. Throughout my time with FEMA, I have had the amazing opportunity to observe new state and local policy development, comment on congressional and executive taskers, learn about the regulation change process and participate in the mitigation plan review process.


After this fellowship, I will continue to challenge myself to be flexible and take on challenges with the perspective “what can I learn from this?” Life is full of new and exciting experiences; we must be courageous enough to seek them out and be ready to learn.

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