Sara Mroz DEL-MEM ’09, a technical assistant with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was deployed to Puerto Rico in the fall to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with hurricane response efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Mroz worked with FEMA’s Surge Capacity Force (SCF) on the Congressional Affairs team. In that role, she traveled around Puerto Rico to see and learn about communities that were severely impacted by the storms. Mroz then planned and executed Congressional visits to affected areas.
Dukenvironment corresponded with Mroz to talk more about her experience in Puerto Rico, and how her Duke Environmental Leadership Master of Environmental Management (DEL-MEM) degree helped prepare her. DEL is the Nicholas School’s online MEM program.
What was the nature of your work in Puerto Rico, and what was your biggest takeaway from your time spent there?
“After arriving in Puerto Rico, I quickly realized that as so often happens, the news story and the real story didn’t necessarily align. It was my job to tell the real story, to ensure that when the members of Congress came to visit Puerto Rico, that they saw and experienced the devastation across the island and that they also saw opportunities for action.
“So, I made sure that they saw food and water deliveries being made to municipalities. That they saw survivors registering for assistance at a Disaster Recovery Center. That they talked to the young pregnant woman in Barranquitas who lost access to her home when the road collapsed at the base of her driveway. That they saw the collapsed bridge in Utuado that connected 60 families to the town and also carried dirty water to and clean water from the water sanitation facility. That they realized that although Puerto Rico looks small on a map, getting to the interior of the island is difficult, fixing issues of power transmission will be extremely challenging, and the logistics of recovery are tremendously difficult.
“Rebuilding Puerto Rico will be a long journey. The policy conversation is starting to shift from one of rebuilding what was to building what can be, and this has broader impacts on recovery policies in our country. It was interesting to witness the beginnings of that policy conversation with our members of Congress.”
What else struck you about how things changed during your time in Puerto Rico?
“When I first arrived in Puerto Rico, it was night time, and the drive from the airport to the JFO was eerie. There were very few cars on the road, streetlights were out, and many buildings did not have electricity, so there was little ambient light.
“The next morning, when I looked outside, it was a strange view. Looking out from the convention center, where the JFO was located, there were buildings everywhere. And I had had no idea of that the night before!
“The trees were bare except for a few palm fronds. Driving out of the city a few days later, the trees looked like broken match sticks with occasional random tufts of leaves. My coworkers remarked at how green things had become in the past two weeks. I laughed because the view was anything but green. As the days went on, the trees looked more and more like drawings from Dr. Seuss books with bunches of leaves here and there. After three weeks, the foliage cover had made it such that it was hard to see damage in the mountains during helicopter overflights.
“By the time I left Puerto Rico, four weeks to the day after I had arrived, things looked and felt very, very different. Cruise ships were returning to port and there were long lines of taxis to take tourists around. Electricity was sporadic, but at least in San Juan, most buildings had some form of power. And the trees were so green.
“Recovery will take a long time and things might not be just like they were before the storm, but people and nature are resilient.”
Where were you working in Puerto Rico?
“I was working in the Joint Field Office (JFO) in San Juan. I was deployed to FEMA as part of the Surge Capacity Force (SCF). The JFO was staffed by employees of many federal agencies, some in their agency roles and some like me ‘on loan’ to FEMA. The SCF was created after Hurricane Katrina to create a workforce that is capable of deploying rapidly and efficiently after activation to prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, including catastrophic incidents.”
What are you most passionate about, and how do you cultivate that passion in your professional life?
“Professionally, I am passionate about good policy. I find partisanship and politics maddening because so often they get in the way of making sound policy decisions.
“As a career federal employee, I have made a point of taking politics out of what I do. Policy is ineffective if people don’t or won’t follow it, so in my mind, the best policy is that which is well informed and is built with consensus. I listen. I build relationships. I get people to talk to each other who normally wouldn’t. I find common ground. I plant seeds. I ask hard questions.
“As the global environment changes, I think that environmental and emergency management policies will necessarily become more inter-twined. Some of the questions I think about are: What makes a community resilient? How can communities be more prepared to weather natural and technological hazards? How can I contribute to making positive changes and contribute good ideas to improve resiliency?”
What community/communities were you helping with?
“In San Juan, I was assigned to the External Affairs cadre, specifically the Congressional Affairs team. My career has been spent in external affairs roles, including time as Congressional staff and in Congressional Affairs positions, so this was a natural fit for me.
“The Congressional Affairs team in San Juan augmented the work of FEMA’s Congressional Affairs team in Washington, D.C., answering questions specific to the Puerto Rico response efforts and responding to inquiries about individual cases.
“My role was to plan and execute Congressional visits to Puerto Rico, so I travelled around the island to see and learn about communities that were severely impacted by the hurricanes. I met with local governments and our federal partners to under-stand the needs of various communities and to plan site visits for the visiting delegations. During the visits, I traveled with the delegations, doing everything from managing logistics to answering questions about the generation capacities of various power plants.”
How did your duke DEL-MEM experience help prepare you to help in Puerto Rico?
“There are many lessons that I carry with me and that were influential during my time in Puerto Rico, particularly given the DEL-MEM focus on leadership. As I was packing for my deployment, I read a quote from St. Francis of Assisi that I carried with me as inspiration: ‘Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’
“To me, this sentiment is also at the heart of the DEL-MEM program—leaders become leaders because they see a problem and they do something about it. When the problems facing the world seem too big or too many to tackle, we can all do something small to affect positive change; we are all leaders.”