Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

The Hagerty Advantage – Our People: Vanessa Castillo, Liston Conrad, and Scott Baldwin

Here at Hagerty, we truly believe the advantage is our people. Given the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) recent announcements in its Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) and Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) programs over the past few weeks, we are excited to recognize the importance of proactive investments in community resilience this month by highlighting the work and perspective of several Hagerty Mitigation professionals.

1. Tell us about yourself and how your path led you to Hagerty Consulting.

Vanessa Castillo: I am an urban planner by trade and have always believed in adapting our built environment so that it functions not only for us but also reflects and adapts to the natural environment that it exists in. I started in Mitigation as a hazard mitigation planner for the Florida Division Emergency Management (FDEM). My career in Mitigation then brought me to the Colorado Division of Emergency Management (CDEM), where, as a mitigation specialist, I took a deep dive into implementing mitigation projects, including those that became critical to the work following Colorado’s historic floods in 2013. After my role with FDEM, I served as the City of Denver’s Environmental Planner, ensuring that critical housing and economic development projects successfully navigated the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) environmental review process. I was excited to get back into the mitigation world, especially in light of the unprecedented changes in the FEMA mitigation programs. Hagerty continues to provide me opportunities to help communities decipher these programs and put the funding to use in significant ways — critical wildfire, drought, and flood mitigation across the country. 

Liston Conrad: I obtained my Bachelor of Science (BS) in Commerce and Business Administration at the University of Alabama (UA) before pursuing my Master of Accountancy. Upon passing the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, I quickly realized the traditional accounting route was not for me. Right out of college, I worked for a CPA firm that, as an extension of its disaster recovery department, helped states and local jurisdictions recover from natural disasters. Through this experience, I had the opportunity to support a Gulf Coast state in its recovery from Hurricane Katrina for five years before moving west to assist a Rocky Mountain state with a hazard mitigation acquisition project. As that project came to a close, I moved to the East Coast to manage a HUD Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) housing program, assisting a community with recovery efforts from Hurricane Matthew. After almost 10 years of experience, I joined Hagerty Consulting.

Scott Baldwin: Before working at Hagerty, I worked for the state of Colorado as a hazard mitigation professional for 10 years in various capacities. During that time, I saw a significant evolution of FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) program. In 2018, the passage of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) signaled a watershed moment for hazard mitigation. Specifically, the significant increase in funding posed a considerable challenge to communities across the country as there was now a greater need for expertise in this area to assist and guide communities in accessing this funding. At that point, I knew I could no longer serve communities with the greatest need in my current position and sought a challenge that would enable me to assist communities with significant mitigation needs. Ultimately, I was excited both by the caliber of professionals at Hagerty as well as its commitment to serving its clients with integrity and excellence.

2. What do you find most rewarding about working in the field of emergency management, specifically mitigation?

Vanessa Castillo: The work I do with communities to get impactful mitigation projects funded and completed is the most rewarding aspect of my job. Especially now, as the field is prioritizing communities that are most vulnerable to the social, economic, cultural, and environmental disruptions caused by natural disasters. As I see award-winning projects come to completion, I am eager to see how this work will improve how communities bounce back from future disaster disruptions. I am excited to participate in projects that prioritize whole community resiliency and climate adaptation. Climate change is not a distant possibility; it is a present-day reality and one that needs our urgent and engaged attention. Many of the mitigation projects being put forth today meet that need, and I am happy to be a part of a team that provides communities with the tools they need to get this urgent work done. 

Liston Conrad: The most rewarding aspect of my work involves assisting local jurisdictions with project development and seeing the projects awarded and implemented, reducing community risk. Mitigation involves forward-looking activities and proactive investments in community resilience to minimize the risks of future disaster suffering. A lot of the time, building strong relationships with community leaders is a critical component of my work. Informing local jurisdictions of the available mitigation opportunities and working closely with them to develop a project that strengthens their community is very rewarding.

Scott Baldwin: I find reward in helping communities identify and put forth the strongest mitigation proposals possible that address community needs and capacity while fully accounting for all the resources necessary to successfully implement projects in accordance with all applicable programmatic, environmental, and historic preservation, and procurement requirements. 

3. With the increase in BRIC funding, what should emergency management professionals know?

Vanessa Castillo: With the increase in BRIC funding, emergency management professionals must engage their counterparts in community planning, economic development, transportation, and other applicable professions to identify and scope projects that meet the goals and priorities of the BRIC program. FEMA has expanded the BRIC program to address the future risks of natural disasters and hazards, including devastating wildfires, severe heat waves, and chronic drought conditions. These circumstances mean that mitigation exceeds the emergency management profession and must be addressed in a multi-disciplined approach where all relevant stakeholders are brought to the table.

Liston Conrad: While the increase in funding opens many doors and opportunities to enrich communities and bolster resiliency, emergency management professionals must recognize the program’s highly selective and nationally competitive allocation process. It is never too early to begin project development, whether that is engineering design or feasibility studies. BRIC projects are large in scale and must have resources devoted to both sub-application development and project implementation.

Scott Baldwin: With the significant increase in BRIC funding made available to communities, emergency management professionals must know that this funding is incredibly time- and labor-intensive to access. In addition, this added funding is forcing FEMA to re-evaluate how it defines mitigation, particularly as communities are experiencing the increasingly dire impacts of climate change. Thus, as the number and intensity of climate disaster events continue to grow, FEMA’s HMA program is expected to expand accordingly with numerous anticipated updates in the coming years. 

That said, FEMA’s last HMA guidance was issued in 2015; and, to adequately address the ever-expanding needs and consequences of climate change, the guidance should be refreshed to expressly encourage projects that aim to minimize carbon footprints and inherently reduce wildfire, flood, and drought risks both on a national and global scale.This year’s BRIC Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) encourages communities to incorporate nature-based solutions designed to reduce carbon emissions and evaluate the carbon footprint of projects they are proposing. In my opinion, these are the first steps toward the federal government’s recognition that a “whole community” approach to leveraging all available funding, inclusive of mitigation, must be used to address climate impacts.

4. How can communities best utilize available federal mitigation funding to strengthen their community’s climate resilience?

Vanessa Castillo: Communities must utilize the funding mechanisms that help them develop mitigation strategies. The federal mitigation programs offer various tools to help communities develop mitigation strategies and projects. Under BRIC, these resources include non-financial Direct Technical Assistance (DTA) and Capability and Capacity Building (C&CB). Through non-financial DTA, FEMA helps communities identify, develop, and implement mitigation strategies. Under C&CB activities, communities can submit for project scoping funds to help build the technical body of work needed to support FEMA mitigation project sub-applications. Communities interested in either DTA or applying under C&CB should engage their State Hazard Mitigation Officer (SHMO) early in the application process to obtain their buy-in for the community’s proposal. 

Liston Conrad: With FEMA making over $2 million available through the BRIC program this grant cycle, local jurisdictions have never been in a better position to pursue mitigation dollars to strengthen their communities. Depending on the region’s geographical location and potential hazards, communities must make resiliency a focus. For instance, as hotter and drier summers continue to escalate wildfire risks in western states, communities must take action now by implementing projects that reduce fuel load and harden home infrastructure against ember attacks. 

Scott Baldwin: The challenges posed by climate change force FEMA to reassess its definition of the eligible activities it is willing to fund under this program. In communities with the resources and capacity to accept the risk of pursuing projects that push the boundaries of what have been traditionally eligible projects, FEMA is now more than ever rewarding applicants. The communities with projects that credibly mitigate natural hazard risk in an unorthodox method and can demonstrate the feasibility of this approach through a smaller proof of concept or via feasibility studies are strong candidates for the BRIC program. I strongly encourage such communities to evaluate the BRIC program as a viable option to fund these activities on a larger scale.

5. What are you passionate about outside of work?

Vanessa Castillo: I am passionate about making sure we preserve our natural wonders and wilderness and leave it better than we found it. I am also a proponent of carless transportation, including bike commuting, public transit, and pedestrian transport. 

Liston Conrad: I absolutely love the mountains. Whether it’s camping, hiking, skiing, or fly fishing, you will find me enjoying the outdoors outside of work. 

Scott Baldwin: Outside of work, I am passionate about spending time with my family and friends. 

To learn more about Hagerty’s work supporting resilient communities, visit our Mitigation and Resilience page here.

Vanessa Castillo is a Deputy Director of Mitigation with experience in the implementation of the FEMA mitigation programs. Before joining Hagerty, she was a Mitigation Specialist with the state of Colorado, where she contributed her expertise to the successful implementation of more than $65 million in the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) for Colorado’s largest disaster.

Liston Conrad is a Senior Recovery and Mitigation Manager with experience in the implementation of FEMA mitigation and Public Assistance (PA) programs along with housing and infrastructure programs funded through CDBG-DR. With over 10 years of experience in disaster recovery, Liston has helped five states navigate the complexities that disasters bring, including wildfires, hurricanes, and extreme floods.

Scott Baldwin is a Senior Recovery and Mitigation Manager and a subject matter expert (SME) in natural hazard mitigation in both the pre- and post-disaster recovery environments. With over 10 years of experience in FEMA’s HMA and PA programs, Scott has worked closely with communities across multiple states to identify, develop, and implement mitigation and recovery solutions tailored to their needs.