Ph.D. candidate helps inform community resilience to floods

Cristina E. Muñoz

Cristina E. Muñoz, a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, spent her summer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C., developing a conceptual framework on community resilience.

In September 2016, a couple weeks after Cristina E. Muñoz completed her summer internship in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, the state of Iowa—and several other parts of the country—experienced devastating floods.

As floodwaters began to threaten the homes, livelihoods and safety of thousands of individuals, the importance and relevance of Muñoz’ summer research at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C., emerged.

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program provides students majoring in homeland security-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the United States.

Muñoz, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Iowa and a National Science Foundation fellow through the Integrative Graduate Education & Research Traineeship, saw the DHS HS-STEM Program as an opportunity to utilize her extensive knowledge of natural hazards and flood resilience at the federal level.

“I was excited and nervous about my DHS summer internship. I had never worked in government and did not know what to expect,” said Muñoz, an executive member of The William Avarette Anderson Fund, an organization for current Ph.D. and master students in the field of natural hazards with the mission of increasing diversity in the field.

Muñoz spent her summer developing a framework that describes and measures community resilience to flood disasters. Community resilience refers to the properties of communities that enable them to prepare, respond, adapt, recover and learn from disasters.

Under the mentorship of Carlos Davila, manager and program analyst at FEMA, Muñoz examined existing literature on community resilience and floods before developing a conceptual framework that identifies potential indicators used to measure resilience across time.

“Much of the current efforts involve developing and implementing projects that address community resilience, but there are limitations to measuring the impact of these programs,” said Muñoz. “By defining and providing a framework for disaster resilience, my research can facilitate the evaluation of such programs.”

Her framework, which she presented both within FEMA and externally at the annual Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado, will be implemented by the State of Iowa’s Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) project.

The IWA project is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the National Disaster Resilience Competition and is aimed at improving Iowa’s water quality and resilience to flooding. Muñoz is part of the Resilience Team in the IWA project, and she will help write a resilience action plan for the eight watersheds involved through community engagement and consultation.

The DHS HS-STEM Program allowed Muñoz to network with other interns and meet employees from across FEMA’s management and administration levels.

“I was delighted to work with FEMA for my DHS HS-STEM internship because I wanted to learn more about emergency management and about federal policies and programs that relate to disaster recovery,” said Muñoz. “Engaging with FEMA employees allowed me to understand the agency as a whole and see the various types of work conducted at the agency. It was the best part of the whole program.”

Her experience at FEMA helped her understand federal level programs and strategies that could be introduced at the local level. Now she is equipped with knowledge, experience, and insight to carry her closer to her career goal.

After she obtains her Ph.D., Muñoz plans to continue her research and community engagement initiatives in the natural hazard and disaster field. She also aims to work as a consultant to disaster-related philanthropy and local government initiatives.

 “As I further develop my career in the natural hazards and disasters field, I feel confident that I will be joining a community of researchers and practitioners who are committed to the lives of others and disaster recovery,” said Muñoz. “Overall, the internship solidified my presentation and communication skills and provided me with insights to disaster management. I would certainly recommend it to others.”

The DHS 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.