Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

The Hagerty Advantage – Our People: Ari Renoni and Tanya Shannon

Over the past year, Hagerty has helped more than 25 state and local governments, as well as over 100 hospitals and healthcare systems respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the month, we will highlight several Hagerty team members who are helping our clients navigate the complexities of the continuing public health crisis by sharing how they have addressed unique response challenges, maximized federal reimbursement opportunities, and tackled recovery challenges your community may be facing.

How did your career path lead you to Hagerty?

Ari: After working in international development, living in the United States (US) and abroad, I opted to pivot into domestic policy work.  For this, I was fortunate to have an opportunity with Hagerty through graduate school contacts.  And the rest is history: Hagerty’s critical public sector work with recovering communities combined with a gifted, hard-working cadre of colleagues was a perfect fit for me.

Tanya: I wanted to be able to see an Applicant through their disaster recovery: beginning to end.

How have you been supporting clients in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Ari: I provide Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) policy and project development expertise to local governments trying to navigate complex and evolving federal rules around COVID-19 assistance for the new emergency work required to respond.  For example, many municipalities sought to combat COVID-19 and help the community cope by providing emergency food assistance, sheltering vulnerable residents and health care workers, expanding hospital capacity, implementing community-based testing, and other critical work.  Given the devastation wrought by COVID-19, and the critical role played by the federal government in supporting community response, this has extended well beyond FEMA – which continues to play a central COVID-19 assistance role – to learning programs at Treasury, Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and other agencies.  My role is to advise communities and help ensure their needs are fairly and fully represented before the federal government. 

Tanya: We have been supporting several local jurisdictions as they respond to COVID-19, developing new programs to meet the emerging needs of their community members (such as rental assistance), and identifying new funding streams, navigating the eligibility rules as the rules were being written. COVID-19 is a very different “disaster” – where local jurisdictions have been in response mode for now almost a year. The needs are different and cash flow is a real concern as costs continue to add up with an unknown future if additional funding will come down to support these costs. In addition to working directly with the public to provide direct financial relief on behalf of our clients, we are working with local leadership to track costs, identify future costs, and strategically determine how funds should be used as they continue in responding to and recovering from COVID-19.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced and/ or addressed while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ari: The sheer scale and scope of community devastation.  As a public health and economic disaster, the extent of COVID-19 damage knows no bounds. While the federal government has tried in some ways to keep up, policy that underpins FEMA and other assistance is a moving target that makes it very difficult for communities to understand what emergency COVID-19 work will actually be funded.  This is an acute problem given the impact COVID-19 has on local government budgets: an increased demand for public services is being compounded by diminished tax revenue, layoffs, and a struggling local economy. 

Tanya: Everyone is writing the rules as we are going. Our clients are needing answers on what they can do with different funding and plan for what is to come and how to pay for it. Those answers may not exist yet or may change due to new interpretations. Typically, the “subject matter expert” in the room for a given federal program is simply the person who read the policy first and memorized it. This ambiguity makes it difficult for local governments to plan while doing what is necessary to meet the needs of their constituents. We utilize our years of experience in federal programs in order to best predict how federal agencies are interpreting these new bills, as well as advocating on our client’s behalf to get every penny needed to respond to COVID-19.

What lesson(s) have you learned – professionally and personally – supporting our clients’ response to the pandemic?

Ari: Work hard – but maintain balance.  For example, working from home full-time has afforded me a wonderful opportunity to spend unbroken time with my two young kids.  But with the intensity, criticality, and time-sensitivity of COVID-19 client support, the blessing of remote work can be a curse when every minute of every day can easily be spent working.  

Tanya: Normally, we like to be with our clients through the response and recovery, standing right by them as they go through every twist and turn. With COVID-19 that hasn’t been possible. We now have clients that I have never met in person, as well as team members I’ve never met in person. Despite this physical separation, it’s been quite remarkable how much of that bond that happens when you’re in the thick of it with a disaster is still happening. We still have to rely on each other like we have in the past to get the job done. I’m truly lucky to work with such great clients and team members, who have even offered to open their homes knowing that a number of us were, at different points over the summer, in the path of various hurricanes. Instead of standing in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), it’s continuous Zoom calls, late night calls and emails, and simply working together to produce remarkable results. I’ve learned that, while easier in person, this type of work still brings people together and brings out the best in them to help people before, during, and after disasters.

What long-term impacts do you believe the COVID-19 pandemic will have on municipalities and States.

Ari: It will take many years for local governments to recover from the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19.  As such, communities reeling from the unthinkable will have to cope with fewer public services at a time when they are most needed.  There is a real risk that COVID-19 is causing permanent damage to communities.  But it has also created a major opportunity to rethink local priorities and create healthier, more resilient communities in the long run.  It’s a new year; vaccinations are rolling out; I take the optimistic view that this too shall pass and we will be stronger for it.

Tanya: As the saying goes, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. Looking back on March and April of 2020 and even to now as the vaccination roll out is occurring, there were efforts at times to adapt existing plans, however largely the existing plans didn’t speak to the needs and issues that have and continue to emerge with COVID-19. COVID-19 required groups that typically don’t work so closely together, to come together and for a much longer response than anyone is accustomed to. I believe COVID-19 will change how we look at the process of planning, building adaptability into plans, and including a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, not only based on subject matter expertise but also capacity. Throughout the country, most plans identified public health agencies as the designated lead agencies and Emergency Support Functions for pandemics. However largely, due to the magnitude of the response needed, the responsibility for leading the response fell to the more traditional emergency management agencies as the experts in commodity acquisition, logistics, and mass coordination.  As the after-action reports are developed and plans are revised, a refocus will occur on the capacity of institutions responding, information sharing mechanisms across disciplines, and overall focus on decision making process, rather than the step-by-step traditional plan.

Ari Renoni is an emergency management professional with 12 years of experience working with government and international public organizations. He has a deep familiarity with federal policy, given his experience supporting FEMA projects for clients in New York, California, Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida.

Tanya Shannon is an emergency management professional with 12 years of experience. Mrs. Shannon serves as the Project Manager for local jurisdictions throughout the State of Florida and other areas overseeing recoveries from natural disasters and COVID-19.