The Hagerty Advantage – Our People: Marina Conner and Julia Davatzes
As extreme winter weather in recent weeks has demonstrated, critical infrastructure and energy systems are vulnerable to a host of challenges, including heavy snowfall, high wind speeds, and brutally cold temperatures. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), these conditions create a higher risk of power outages, health risks, and disruption of transportation and communication systems. Additionally, as temperatures increase, a sudden thaw of heavy snow and relentless rainfall can lead to severe flooding as the water levels of surrounding rivers and streams rise above normal. As a result, communities become faced with significant inconveniences and, if caught unprepared, potentially hazardous situations. This month, we are highlighting some of Hagerty’s Preparedness professionals to discuss their career paths, professional experiences, and perspective on how communities can strengthen infrastructure resilience and mitigate the effects of winter storms.
1. Tell us about yourself and how your career path led you to Hagerty.
Marina Conner: Before joining Hagerty, I began my career in emergency management as a park ranger with the National Park Service (NPS). My first real exposure to emergency management was working through the Incident Command System (ICS) structure prepping for and responding to hurricanes. This work was really exciting to me, and I felt like I was truly making an impact in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. I funneled that inspiration and decided to get as much exposure as possible while working on my master’s degree in Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. After graduation, I worked in the Office of Emergency Management for the University of Rhode Island (URI). Our office covered everything from blizzards and hurricanes to the COVID-19 pandemic and large-scale music and sporting events. After a few years there, I found myself itching to expand my experience, especially in the way of energy and critical infrastructure resilience. The breadth of project opportunities at Hagerty really spoke to me and drew me to where I am today.
Julia Davatzes: My career in emergency management began at the University of Virginia (UVA), where I studied Civil and Environmental Engineering with a primary focus on learning about environmental hazards and impacts. I spent most of my time outside of class volunteering locally with nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels, which exposed me to the network of community organizations that work together to support individuals in need. I also lived in Charlottesville during the events of August 11 and 12, and looking back now, I watched a community experience what I now see as disaster recovery. After witnessing the importance of community-led recovery firsthand, I knew I wanted to pursue a career that combined my interests in hazards and building community. I found Hagerty in early 2020, and the rest is history.
2. What do you find most rewarding about working in the field of emergency management?
Marina Conner: Whether we’re working with a local government agency, a regional utility, or a major corporation, the impacts of having actionable plans in place cascade well beyond those organizations’ scope. Having lived nearly all of my life in disaster-prone rural communities, I’ve seen the impacts firsthand of what disasters can do, especially to the most vulnerable in those communities. The work that I’m so fortunate to do helps organizations consider not just their own internal preparedness but how that preparedness can impact the communities that they serve or work in. Capturing those cascading impacts and assisting organizations to close the gaps that can leave the most vulnerable behind is what helps build resilient and safe communities.
Julia Davatzes: A significant focus of my job is to guide communities to identify and consider the populations that are most at risk of hazards, which often overlays with historically underrepresented populations. We then encourage communities to identify and implement projects to better protect those individuals, increase their accessibility of programs, and improve the delivery of post-disaster services. It is a real privilege to help bring historically underrepresented populations to the forefront of the discussion and promote equity in pre-disaster planning in this way.
3. As critical infrastructure across the nation becomes increasingly vulnerable to environmental adversities, what do you believe are the most important steps to help improve resilience and mitigate risks of future disruptions?
Marina Conner: Interagency cooperation is key to improving resilience and mitigating future disruptions. No organization wants to find itself with its back against the wall on the other side of an emergency or incident, unsure of its next step to recovery. By working now to assess existing interdependencies with other organizations, government offices, and stakeholders, organizations can answer the question of “What do we do?” before the question is ever asked. Incorporating other organizations into emergency planning processes and training is also an excellent way to foster strong relationships between groups and increase overall resilience. Strong relationships amongst organizations, even those that are competitors, can help organizations recover more quickly and be overall more resilient. True resiliency has no losers, only winners, and has space at the table for everyone to win.
Julia Davatzes: Two important steps to improving our infrastructure resilience are accurately understanding our risks and vulnerabilities and implementing a holistic strategy to address those risks. We must consider the future conditions of climate change-enhanced disasters as the conditions of now. The “100-year floods” are happening more often, and there is an opportunity to utilize more advanced risk modeling systems to determine resilient standards that infrastructure should withstand. Additionally, resilience does not exist in a vacuum. A project manager at Hagerty once told me that effective mitigation requires a layering of actions to build a culture of resilience. While the traditional mitigation methods of structural hardening and retrofits are important, public education programs, local ordinances, zoning requirements, and programmatic changes are just as valuable in improving resilience.
4. What are some simple precautions you take to personally prepare for severe winter storm weather?
Marina Conner: Even though I live in South Carolina, where severe winter weather isn’t super typical, living in Rhode Island gave me some perspective on winter storm prep. My biggest takeaway is that having well-invested infrastructure, including plows, salt trucks, and other equipment, can greatly reduce the severity of winter storms’ impact on a community. In South Carolina, the infrastructure is only needed every few years and generally isn’t available to prepare for a storm, so even a little snow or ice can feel like a blizzard did in Rhode Island! That being said, my personal prep list includes the following:
- Before a winter storm arrives, I prepare resources for everyone in my household, including measures for food, warmth, water, and general safety. This includes prep for my two dogs, who will need their own food, water, and blankets during the storm. Additionally, I make sure all pets have their collars on before the weather hits, and they stay on until the storm passes. I also have little lights that hang from their collars, and I turn them on so I can see them in the dark.
- Secondly, I set out flashlights and lanterns before the storm to prepare for possible power outages. These areas are usually: my nightstand, by my front and back door, on the kitchen counter, in the bathroom, and in the garage. There’s nothing worse than stumbling around a dark house trying to find a flashlight.
- Lastly, I salt early! Especially if ice is in the forecast, pre-treating sidewalks, driveways, and steps is a way to prevent injuring myself and others. I also ensure my vehicle is backed into my driveway and angled towards the road. This allows for easier control in slippery conditions.
Julia Davatzes: I view winter storm preparations as being ready for “winter camping,” which means I pay attention to the news, prepare early, write down all important public safety and personal phone numbers, and keep an extra external battery charged. Additionally, I make sure to store a supply of potable water and easy-to-prepare food items (PB&Js sustained me through Winter Storm Uri).
5. What are you passionate about outside of work?
Marina Conner: Outside of work, I’m big on gardening. I’m fortunate to have great year-round growing seasons where I live. I focus a lot of my garden on local, in-season produce, and I also try and grow everything from seed or scrap where possible. One of my dogs is big on carrots, so he’s really thankful that carrots are in season in the garden right now. I don’t think I’ve actually enjoyed one of my carrots yet this season!
Julia Davatzes: I enjoy hiking, rock climbing, and spending time with friends. I have a weekly Sunday potluck with a group of friends that is often the highlight of my week! I’ve really loved getting to know Austin better over the last few years and am on a quest to experience all the live music I can and find the best breakfast tacos in the city.
To learn more about Hagerty’s work supporting infrastructure resilience and emergency preparedness planning, visit our Preparedness page here.
Marina Conner is a Managing Associate for Hagerty’s Preparedness division with seven-plus years of experience in preparedness and response programs. She holds a Master of Science (MS) degree in Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management from Arkansas State University (ASU) and has experience supporting a range of project subjects, including Continuity of Operations Planning (COOP), Crisis Communications, and Emergency Action Plans (EAP).
Julia Davatzes is a Managing Associate for Hagerty’s Preparedness division with a background in civil and environmental engineering and demonstrated experience in local jurisdictional planning. In her role at Hagerty, she has supported plan development and implementation initiatives related to Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Sustainment, Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMP), and Disaster Recovery and Redevelopment Plans.