Student utilizes past experiences to improve post-disaster housing recovery

Emma Lieberman
As a part of her DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship, Emma Lieberman had the opportunity to visit the DHS Coast Guard Station Washington at Joint Base Anacostia-Boiling where she listened to a presentation and toured the station. “The Coast Guard is unique because it serves a variety of missions, from marine environmental protection to search and rescue and migrant interdiction,” she said. “The Coast Guard has a volunteer component, known as the Auxiliary, which I hope to get involved with my next semester back at school.”

As a fourth grader living in New Jersey at the time of 9/11, Emma Lieberman quickly figured out that a career in a national security-oriented field was what she desired.

“There is no denying that my career goals are influenced by Sept. 11, 2001,” explained Lieberman, a senior in mathematical social science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “I still remember quite clearly the events of that fateful day. Living in New Jersey in a small commuter town very close to New York City, our teacher shut the classroom door and asked each of us individually where our parents worked.”

Even as a young child, Lieberman felt the atmosphere change in her community. “I remember smelling the burning towers and having to pass through a military security checkpoint to visit my grandparents in New York,” she said. “Choices I have made since then reflected these experiences and led me to get involved in an area, like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that helps protect this country.”

A few years later, while in high school, Lieberman was able to directly interact with DHS while participating in the Coast Guard Academy’s summer Academy Introduction Mission program and that experience led her to apply for the DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program once she reached college. The program offers college students the opportunity to conduct DHS-relevant research at a federal research facility. Lieberman joined her mentor, Robert Zimmerman, in the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute (HSSAI), a federally-funded research and development center that provides independent analyses regarding homeland security issues.

Her research aids DHS’s “Housing and Community Rebuilding Following Disasters” project, a subject that became very personal following the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy after it swept through her hometown of Tenafly, N.J.

Lieberman draws parallels between her personal experiences and her research, which focuses on a town more than 1,000 miles away - New Orleans - and its devastation following Hurricane Katrina. Her focus is on post-Katrina housing as she examines two recovery programs: the Make It Right organization, which builds green houses in one of the hardest hit parishes, and the Louisiana Road Home program—a government-funded program that has given out $8.9 billion.

“The purpose is to compare the two programs against each other by finding their pluses and deltas, and then compare them to an overall framework,” said Lieberman. “I want to find the better one, but, more importantly, bring to light the characteristics of what an ideal long-term housing recovery program should look like.”

Lieberman has learned much about housing recovery through her participation. For instance, the difference between “restoration rebuilding" and “resilience rebuilding”is greater than she would have thought. “Restoration rebuilding leads to returning to the way things were, thus you set yourself up for the same situation when another disaster hits," she explained. “Resilience rebuilding, on the other hand, builds for the future by fixing the mistakes that left you vulnerable. With the programs I am evaluating, one might not be able to exist without the other. Families in the Make It Right organization often use grants from the Louisiana Road Home program to help pay for their new homes.”

Through her research, Lieberman talks with those who are affected by these disasters and learns about the hardships they have experienced and still have to endure. For her, that personal connection adds to the research and amplifies the importance of her project.

By joining the DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, Lieberman has gained a more solid direction for her future career goals.

“I want to work in an area related to a federal agency or the government, even if it is not my whole career,” she said, making note of her newfound interest in the analytical and operational side of DHS. “Living in this country has given me numerous opportunities and freedoms that I would not be able to have living elsewhere; I hope that somewhere in my career I have the opportunity to do meaningful work.”

The HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.