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Insight

Answering the Call

When disaster strikes, most of us run the other way. Evacuate via emergency routes. Board up the house. Check the flood insurance. Stock up on bread, milk and water.

But for some, disasters are a signal for action. They pack their bags and head into the danger zone, rebuilding communities that have been demolished and helping our clients rebuild with resilience.

Over the past two decades, CDM Smith’s disaster recovery experts have stepped up in times of crisis. Whether it means getting on a plane at a moment’s notice or relocating to a disaster-struck area for months or years, our best and brightest rise to the occasion. These devoted professionals have helped assess the damage and rebuild communities globally—from close to home, to places they’d never visited before.

Helping her native land weather future storms
 

When Hurricane Maria—a high-end Category 4 storm with winds ripping around 155 mph—made landfall on Puerto Rico, Debbie Santos, a water resources engineer, worried for her family. Although Debbie, her husband and two children had left the tropical island for Texas the year prior, the remainder of her family was at the front lines of Maria’s force.

By the time Hurricane Maria made its way through Puerto Rico, 100% of the island and its 3.4 million residents were left without electricity. The storm flooded infrastructure, ripping away roofs and knocking down cellphone towers like bowling pins. Debbie sent family and friends boxes of supplies weekly, not knowing if they’d even arrived due to lack of communication coming from the island.

“We sent about nine to 11 generators, and we had no idea if they were receiving anything,” she recalls. “The worst feeling was this sense of powerlessness.”

The following January, Debbie joined the CDM Smith team in Dallas, TX, as a water resources engineer. Shortly after, she was approached to deploy with FEMA to Puerto Rico to assist with Hurricane Maria recovery. Her years of experience as a water resources specialist in San Juan, where she worked on projects involving drought management, flood control and water systems reliability, along with Debbie’s understanding of the culture and language, made her a perfect match for the deployment.

“For me, to be able to work in the long-term recovery of the island was incredibly significant.”

After completing mandatory FEMA training, as every person who partakes in a deployment must do, Debbie jumped into the efforts by working with hazard mitigation to reduce the risk of future damage, making communities more resilient.

“It’s very touching when you meet with applicants, hospitals and government officials because everyone has their own ‘Maria story.’ We can't have this level of destruction again, so we're trying to keep everyone safe while we're working with them to create solutions.”

Years after Hurricane Maria, there is still work to be done both rebuilding and weathering future storms, as well as continuing to support FEMA on the island. Back home in the Dallas office, Debbie continues to work with FEMA to train others who are being deployed to the island. Once the COVID-19 pandemic started, FEMA ceased all deployments, and trainings became virtual—both in English and Spanish.

Helping clients and communities prepare and recover

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