From the bayou to Berkeley, a master of disaster management

After Superstorm Sandy battered the Eastern seaboard in October 2012, a nationwide appeal went out for trained personnel to help beleaguered communities. Among those requested by name was Amina Assefa, a UC Berkeley employee who had previously worked for both the City of New York and the State of Louisiana, developing public-health and medical-related emergency-response plans.

Amina Assefa

Amina Assefa (Kevin Ho Nguyen photo)

On loan from Berkeley, Assefa spent two hectic weeks in New York City’s huge Emergency Operations Center, helping to organize evacuations from healthcare facilities and dispatch teams into high-rise buildings to survey tenants’ medical needs.

Despite inevitable “craziness” when responding to a disaster of that scale, “It was nice to flex those muscles again,” she says.

Now the head of the campus’s Office of Emergency Management — where she spends her days planning for events she hopes will never happen — Assefa has flexed her professional muscles in a remarkable catalog of past emergencies, from major hurricanes to crippling blizzards and an H1N1 flu outbreak.

She’s part of what she calls the “new guard” in a field once dominated by firefighters and police officers. Sometime after 9/11 that started to change, she says:  Colleges began to offer emergency-management degrees, turning out “younger people like me who can write and have the skill set to develop plans” and, when disaster strikes, to staff emergency-operations centers, “making sure the resources are getting to the right place” for first responders.

SoCal native

Native American and Ethiopian by heritage, Assefa grew up in Southern California, with six siblings (including her twin sister), who piled into the car each summer, heading to Kansas for Ioway Tribe powwows.

Assefa in NYC EOC

Assefa helps with New York City’s response to Superstorm Sandy.

She attended Mills College, in Oakland, where she played intercollegiate volleyball and thrived on the female-positive ethos, “thinking you can have a career in any field,” she says. Afterwards Assefa taught middle school for three years at Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter School. Her fourth year there, at the age of 25, she served as school principal.

Her initiation to disaster management came when she was on the brink of applying to graduate programs. Instead, she answered a call for Red Cross volunteers after Hurricane Katrina hit.

In Mississippi, where she was assigned first, Assefa witnessed entire neighborhoods reduced to concrete-foundation slabs, and large casino barges driven onto dry land by storm surges. She lived in an emergency shelter with evacuees, and then a tent with 350 other emergency workers. There, at the end of each exhausting, oppressively hot day, one of the bright spots was watching a pod of dolphins — escapees from a Mississippi aquarium, rescued in the Gulf of Mexico — swim in small tanks.

“It was amazing to think that,” though storm-battered and scarred, “they survived and stayed together,” Assefa says. “That time on the Gulf Coast really changed the course of my life. It made me want to do disaster management. I never did that Ph.D. program.”

After the storm

Within months she had enrolled in a public-health master’s program with a disaster-management emphasis, offered by Tulane University, in New Orleans.

medical evacuation drill

Amina Assefa (left) takes part in a medical-evacuation drill.

She recalls the city, ravaged by the storm and the failure of its levees: “No stoplights anywhere in the city… houses on top of cars.”

Living in the Crescent City after Katrina, she began to appreciate the psychological effects of living in the shadow of a disaster. “It’s hard, even if you weren’t personally affected. The suicide rate a year after Katrina was higher than immediately following the storm.”

As for what it takes to succeed in her line of work, Assefa recommends a calm personality and “an organized brain, a mind that can triage.”

“It’s a certain mentality” — staying focused on doing “the right thing globally, meeting larger needs of the community” while accepting that many individual needs will go unmet.

“That’s why I tell people, ‘Have your own emergency go-bag,'” Assefa says. “If you have medications or prescription glasses or a vegetarian diet, you’ll need to supply it yourself. Own your own preparedness.”


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