GSPIA is pleased to announce that a water management innovator and GSPIA alumna has been hired to serve as a Visiting Senior Lecturer and Interim Director of its Center for Disaster Management.
We took a moment with Miriam Belblidia (MPA '09) recently to talk shop about her career and her vision for the same Center that set her on her current career path.
Q: Tell us about your time at GSPIA and your experience with disaster management.
A: I came to GSPIA to study disaster management under Dr. Louise Comfort. I was applying to graduate school in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami, which drove my interest in this field. I applied what I was learning in the classroom at GSPIA through my graduate internship in New Orleans, in which I worked with the University of New Orleans’s Center for Hazards Assessment, Response, and Technology (UNO-CHART) and volunteered with the City of New Orleans’s Office of Homeland Security. My project was focused on city-assisted evacuation of elderly residents during hurricanes, which was a major issue during Katrina.
Following grad school, I moved back to New Orleans, where I was hired by the City’s Hazard Mitigation division of Homeland Security. We were mainly focused on post-Katrina mitigation grant programs and planning efforts to reduce risk. During my time at the City, I received a Fulbright Fellowship in Flood Management, which allowed me to conduct research in the Netherlands. It proved to be a life-changing experience, and furthered my understanding of hazard mitigation.
In 2012, I left local government to found Water Works, a small company focused on building resilience and reducing risk from flooding, pollution, and natural hazards. This allowed for an interdisciplinary approach to risk reduction, focused on community-driven solutions to better mitigate disasters.
Q: You've invested the majority of your efforts in New Orleans? Why?
A: I'm not a native New Orleanian, I was born in Atlanta, but have many family ties there and to Pittsburgh. My grandparents are from Pittsburgh but moved to New Orleans during World War II and were married there. I'm invested in New Orleans because I think it is one of the most fascinating cities in the country and is at the forefront in confronting issues of climate change, disaster capitalism, and community resilience.
Q: What is your vision for the Center this year?
A: I would like to bring a focus on hazard mitigation and how we can build the resilience of our communities before disasters hit, so that disasters have less of a catastrophic impact. Despite our best efforts, disasters are increasing worldwide — there are many reasons for this, including climate change, risky development decisions, and politics and policies that prioritize short-term gains but leave people more vulnerable in the long term. If we are going to reduce disaster losses, we will need to address the root causes of social and technical vulnerabilities within our communities. I also look forward to building new partnerships between CDM and the other university centers -- disaster management is interconnected with many issues, and it’s vital that we work together to address our shared risk.
Q: What unique skills/perspective do you bring to your new role?
A:My work experience has been in local government, the private sector, and as a grassroots activist. I am firmly committed to community-driven solutions to hazard mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. I have seen firsthand how disaster recovery exacerbates underlying inequities when communities are not able to have a seat at the decision making table, and will bring co-creation and Participatory Action Research models into my work as interim director of CDM. 5)
Q: What do you hope students take away from their time at the Center?
A: I hope students will come away from CDM with an understanding of the complexity of disaster management, and how it intersects with many other issues they will be working on in their professional lives, including housing, development, zoning, policy work, local and international affairs. I will work with students to see how they can apply an equity framework to their future endeavors, whether it is working directly in disaster management or one of the many related fields.
Q: What is your favorite part of Pittsburgh that you're excited to come back to when you make on-site visits?
A: I love Pittsburgh's strong neighborhoods and history. The Cathedral of Learning is one of my all-time favorite buildings. It's been great to be back and get reacquainted with the city a decade after I moved to New Orleans.
Belblidia will be on campus and available to meet with students at 12:30 pm Friday, Sept. 28 in Posvar 3600.