Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

The Hagerty Advantage – Our People: Senior Managing Associate Nicole Morales

Nicole Morales joined Hagerty Consulting’s Preparedness Division in 2017. As a Senior Managing Associate, Nicole manages planning, training, and exercise initiatives for clients nationwide. Nicole is a George Washington University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs and a graduate certificate in Intelligence Analysis from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. We recently sat down with Nicole to discuss her path to Hagerty and her commitment to emergency management—in and out of the office.

Nicole briefing Team Rubicon “Grey Shirts” during a disaster deployment.

Joining Hagerty Consulting:

I am a proud native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and now reside in Washington, D.C. I evacuated the city days prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. Like many others seeking refuge from the storm, I celebrated as the city avoided a direct hit from the hurricane, and with equal measure, wept as news alerts announced the inundation of my beloved city due to breaches in the levee system.

In the decade since, my professional life has been largely focused on domestic and international emergency management. As a consultant, I’ve supported the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with national-level planning efforts to help coordinate the ability of the federal government to respond to disasters around the country, and also supported the U.S. Department of State with a multilateral initiative to increase the ability of other countries to respond to acts of terrorism.

I forged this path in honor of the estimated 1,833 individuals who lost their lives during Hurricane Katrina (and the countless others who remain forever changed). It is my personal mission to ensure that we learn from the mistakes of the past so that this pain and suffering was not experienced in vain.

As I deployed to disasters around the country, I found myself asking the same question, ‘How is my professional work helping to reduce suffering and devastation in communities like this one?’ I recognized that I needed to shift my attention to increasing preparedness and resilience at the local level, and sought out a firm respected by mentors and peers alike, Hagerty Consulting.

Nearly a year later, as I work side-by-side with local and state emergency managers to prepare small towns and big cities for disasters, I am left with no doubt about our impact on the communities we serve.”

Volunteering to support disaster relief:

“I am a volunteer leader with Team Rubicon, which is a veteran-led, non-profit disaster response organization that unites the skills of veterans, first responders, and civilians to respond to disasters around the world. Team Rubicon has no political, religious, or governmental affiliation, and provides response and recovery services—such as damage assessments, chainsaw operations, incident management, and debris removal—to impacted communities free-of-charge.

I’m also a Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteer with the American Red Cross, which enables me to respond to local disasters—through the provision of sheltering, case management, and other mass care services—here in Washington, D.C.”

Staying committed to serving others:

“Casualties, destroyed property, and piles of debris are the visible consequences of disasters, but catastrophic situations also wreak havoc on individuals’ emotional and mental well-being. Loss of control over one’s circumstances, feelings of uncertainty about the future, and mental exhaustion are near universal emotions for disaster survivors. I’ve spoken with hundreds of disaster survivors and have found that there is no greater antidote to these feelings of hopeless and despair than when a complete stranger extends a helping hand.

In addition to restoring hope amongst disaster survivors, volunteerism also feeds the souls of those who serve. After every disaster, the worst of Mother Nature brings out the best of human nature as citizens from coast-to-coast ask the question, ‘How can I help?’ Organizations like Team Rubicon enable everyday citizens to channel that selflessness and compassion into direct service to others, regardless of your background, skill set, mobility level, or age.”

Making memories through engagement with disaster survivors:

“Disaster response organizations like Team Rubicon utilize a variety of tools to identify which communities need assistance, including hotlines for survivors to directly request help, door-to-door outreach, and collaboration with community leaders. For every single disaster I’ve responded to, I’ve directly supported these community engagement efforts, and have found them to be some of the most humbling moments in my life. I’ve watched homeowners fall to their knees in gratitude when they learn that we are going to gut their flood-soaked home free-of-charge. I’ve seen tough male patriarchs break down in tears at the sight of a team of veterans, first responders, and civilians who’ve traveled from around the world to help their fellow man.

And equally as humbling, many of the individuals reaching out to us—who have lost their homes and material possessions—request that we help a family member, neighbor, or friend who ‘needs the help more.’ During a phone call with a Hurricane Harvey survivor, I asked for her address so we could send a damage assessment team to her home. She responded, ‘Can I give you one hundred other addresses first? There are elderly and non-English speaking residents in my community and I do not want them to be forgotten. Put me at the bottom of your list.’”

Nicole’s recommendations for other emergency management professionals:

  • Step into the arena. As emergency management professionals, we have an obligation to “step into the arena” and apply our expertise during real-world disasters. Planners and policymakers must get out in the field to understand where plans and operations diverge. Practitioners, particularly those in less disaster-prone jurisdictions, should seek out every opportunity to provide surge support to other geographic areas. Every emergency management professional should experience the smells, sounds, sights, and most importantly, the human dimension, of a disaster. If you can’t reach the field through your job, seek out volunteer opportunities to get to the field.
  • Do not fear the disruptors. When I first entered the emergency management field, I mistakenly believed that response and recovery operations were solely governmental activities, with only a limited role for private sector and non-governmental entities. With the emergence of groups like the Cajun Navy; usage of technology like drones for damage assessments and Uber for disaster survivor transportation assistance; and the role that faith-based and non-governmental organizations play in bridging the gap between initial emergency response and long-term recovery, we should seek out every opportunity to “disrupt” the emergency management field by bring unlikely stakeholders to the planning table and into the field.
  • Write for an 8th grade audience. One of the most common complaints I receive from disaster survivors is that disaster recovery information is located in disparate places and is often mired in bureaucratic language and processes. Once located, the information is equally difficult to comprehend, particularly for survivors with limited formal education or literacy. Since the average reading level of Americans is around an 8th grade level, our public-facing materials must be easily understood by an 8th grade audience.  Anything short of that is a grave injustice to those who need the information the most.
  • Uphold the dignity of all survivors. Public health professionals, social services providers, and first responders work collaboratively on a daily basis to support individuals experiencing homelessness; individuals with drug and alcohol addictions; and individuals with mental illnesses. Planning efforts, exercises, and real-world operations must fully account for these populations. While resources and personnel are often limited during a disaster, ensuring continued delivery of services (e.g., mobile methadone clinics, replacement of psychiatric medication, housing options) is much less resource intensive than having to respond to the crises that result from an absence of care. As importantly, ensuring continued services to disaster survivors with pre-existing conditions maintains their dignity and independence. When planning for these populations, ask yourself, “Would I accept this level of care for my loved one?”

Hagerty Consulting is always looking for intellectually curious people with a commitment to the public sector to join our team. We want to learn more about you. Please visit our career site here to view open opportunities and apply.