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Lea Sabbag (MCRP ’16), one of the Coastal Resilience Center’s (CRC) Education and Workforce Development grant recipients, was part of CRC work from 2014-2016. She spoke about her current role with North Carolina Emergency Management and how the CRC shaped her career path.

Can you describe the work you did with the Coastal Resilience Center?

From 2014-2016, I was a research assistant at the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC). During that time, I supported [CRC Director] Dr. Gavin Smith on a FEMA-funded project investigating the role of governors and state agencies in disaster recovery, and explored how these actors influence the degree to which resources address local needs, timing of assistance and inter-organizational coordination across the disaster recovery network. Through literature reviews of congressional testimony and academic literature – as well as personal interviews with two former governors who were heavily involved in state disaster recovery efforts – we assessed the importance of gubernatorial leadership and the role that pre-event planning had long-term recovery outcomes. Not only was I provided the opportunity to present our preliminary findings at the 2015 Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in Broomfield, Colo., but our research is now published in the peer-review journal Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy.


Where are you currently working, and how does that role relate to the Homeland Security enterprise? Had you been in any previous career roles related to emergency management and recovery work?

In January 2018, I accepted a position at North Carolina’s Division of Emergency Management (NCEM) as the Housing Manager for the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR). In this role, I am responsible for the overall management of housing recovery efforts, including coordination of assistance programs for homeowner rehabilitation and reconstruction, temporary rental assistance, development of affordable multi-family units and supportive housing measures. In the program’s current stage, I support the application intake and data ingestion process for eligibility review and analysis for duplication of benefits. Additional duties include the development of housing policy and procedural guidelines, as well as supporting program design and implementation of new affordable and community development housing initiatives.

Not only am I gaining valuable experience in federal cross-cutting requirements as they pertain to procurement and implementation, but the partnerships formed with housing developers, financial institutions and local officials has been crucial to my professional growth.

Prior to my involvement with the CDBG-DR program, I was the Housing Operations Manager for NCEM’s Recovery section following the disaster declaration for Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. In this role, I supported housing operations administered at the state and federal level, as well as helped identify program interdependencies and strategic coordination efforts.


Can you explain how your experience with the CRC impacted your career trajectory?

My research assistantship with the CRC was instrumental in not only strengthening my skills as a natural hazards planner, but it also provided a truly unique opportunity to utilize the breadth of knowledge that I acquired at UNC-Chapel Hill and apply it to current recovery operations across the state. Specific examples include best management practices for administering acquisition and relocation programs, as well as lessons learned from past disasters regarding the timing of assistance and mechanisms for building capacity and fostering engagement at the state and local level.

Additionally, the CRC exposed me to a wide range of ongoing resilience-building activities, and the importance of systems thinking as a model for understanding the complexities of disaster recovery work.  This experience was a vital catalyst to my professional growth, and I am grateful for the mentorship and financial support that I was provided as a graduate student.