Mari Radford: Protecting communities from flood risk

Community and Regional Planning master's program alumnus Mari Radford

Mari Radford would like nothing more than to have her job no longer be necessary.

As a Lead Community Planner for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s floodplain management and insurance branch, Radford, a 2009 graduate of Temple’s Community and Regional Planning master’s program, knows all too well the devastation and loss caused by flooding in the United States.

“It might sound funny, but our goal is to put ourselves out of business. Our mission is to help communities make the best decisions on where and how to build,” said Radford, who became part of FEMA’s Region III team in 2010 — Region III includes Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Delaware, West Virginia and Virginia. “It is so much easier to make informed decisions to mitigate flooding before an event happens. Our job it to help communities reach a level of resilience that allows them to get back on their feet with a minimal amount of difficulty.”

Flooding is the number one disaster in the United States and the world. As local neighborhoods and communities can attest, this region of the country is particularly susceptible to the devastating impact of floods. And anyone who has watched the news in recent weeks has seen the astonishing images of flood-ravaged communities throughout the country.

“Between 1980 and 2013, the United States suffered more than $200 billion in flood damage. That takes a tremendous toll on people and communities,” Radford said. “But out of all of the types of disasters, flooding is the most predictable. There are things that we can do to prevent it from happening.”

When Radford arrived at Temple to pursue her master’s degree, she was no stranger to assisting communities on a global stage.

Working for the State Department for more than 20 years with postings all over the world, Radford helped ensure the safety of civilians and soldiers in war torn Mogadishu, Somalia; evacuated refugees escaping tribal violence in Rwanda; and assisted in building communities from the ground up in Russian Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“I loved my jobs overseas and I was really trying to determine how to make those experiences marketable in the real world. Everything I heard about the Community and Regional Planning program seemed to legitimize my previous experience,” she said. “I entered the program in January 2007 and immediately connected with (then Department Chair) Deborah Howe. She really went out on a limb for me and provided me with a graduate assistanceship — the faculty became my colleagues, we shared office space; I was able to develop such a wonderful network of connections in the field.”

Radford said her State Department experience provided a “very logical link” to her CRP studies.

“In several of the places we served, we always had a suitcase packed, whether it was because of political unrest or physical instability in the region. One of the mandates of the State Department was to always have a sense of readiness,” she said. “Through all of my experiences, emergency management became a real interest of mine. I learned very early on that building communities was not just about where to place city hall, mapping out streets, and stormwater management. It’s also about how to plan for safety — I wanted to take my skills and apply them in an emergency management context.”

After interning with FEMA while still a student at Temple University Ambler, Radford began working for URS Corporation as their FEMA Outreach Coordinator right out of the gate — “a perfect match for my interest in emergency management planning and my newly minted Community and Regional Planning degree” — before transitioning to FEMA initially as a mitigation planner.

“The job has definitely evolved,” she said. “The staff is now almost all professional planners with a lot more training out in the field. We work proactively with local floodplain administrators, elected officials, building inspectors, permitting officials, non-profits, residents, bankers, mortgage brokers, realtors and insurance agencies. The bottom line is building capacity for flood risk reduction.”

FEMA, Radford said, is currently involved in an ongoing project to remap all of America’s coasts and has funded a variety to floodplain mapping projects throughout the country — including the extensive remapping of the Pennypack Creek Watershed conducted by Temple University’s Center for Sustainable Communities — “to help protect our communities; to prevent disasters before they happen and help ensure there is less devastation when they do occur.”

More than three years out from Hurricane Sandy and more than 10 years out from Hurricane Katrina, FEMA continues to work with communities throughout the country to get back on their feet again after natural disasters.

“Events like Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene in 2011 had a tremendous impact on Pennsylvania — we are still working with communities re-building from those storms. Hurricane Sandy, of course, did tremendous damage to New Jersey and New York,” Radford said. “The Midwest is currently seeing record flooding while California is experiencing devastating El Niño-fueled storms. FEMA’s primary focus is how do you keep a town or community functioning — rebuilding infrastructure such as schools, roads, police departments and fire stations is a priority.”

When something overwhelming occurs, FEMA is there to assist communities; assist residents in finding the resources they need to rebuild while also identifying risks and developing plans to rebuild safer, sustainable communities, Radford said. FEMA works with communities to prioritize their rebuilding plans and identify available funding, she added.

“It’s about everyone working together to fulfill an essential need,” she said. “We’re also involved in a lot of outreach and a lot of public education; floodplain management classes, for example, to help reduce the risk of flooding.”

FEMA is also part of the regional response and coordination for any major event in the country, both natural “and planned,” Radford added. FEMA, for example will be involved in the coordination of Pope Francis’ recent visit to the city in addition to the upcoming Democratic Presidential Convention in Philadelphia.

“Whether an event is natural or manmade, you have to be prepared for everything,” she said. “Because we are prepared, we can respond effectively in concert — at the local, community, state, federal and national level.”

Looking back on how the Community and Regional Planning program prepared her to help face what can seem to be insurmountable challenges, Radford said Temple provided “an extremely welcoming, supportive environment that prepared me for a career that I know allows me to make a difference.” 

“With evening classes, Community and Regional Planning really is a wonderful program for working adults — you’re not leaving the program with horrible amounts of debt and you don’t have to worry about daytime scheduling. The faculty are all people working in the industry sharing their knowledge, their skill, and their connections — it’s a readymade network,” she said. “There are so many planning career avenues to pursue — transportation, housing, community building, GIS, stormwater management, historical preservation, emergency management — and all of them are fascinating.”