For this month’s Confluence, we wanted to highlight tribal emergency managers. Our Education & Outreach Coordinator, Brandi Hunter, recommended we highlight Elyzabeth Estrada. Brandi said, “I met Elyzabeth on LinkedIn.  She had joined Aspiring Emergency Managers Online and introduced herself to me, and said she would like to help the community any way she could.  From there, I asked her if she would like to do one of AEMO’s video series called ‘3-Minute Informational Videos’, which features professional emergency managers and provides a snapshot of their experience as an emergency manager in their field/expertise and how aspiring emergency managers can get their foot in the door of an all-hazards field.  She also participated in AEMO’s first webinar called ‘Insider Series,’ a follow-up to the video series for a live Q&A with participating aspiring emergency managers.

Elyzabeth is a Training & Exercise Emergency Management Coordinator at the University of Miami Health System & Miller School of Medicine in Miami, FL. She currently serves as the Planning Section Chief (PSC) for the Health System’s Medical Coordination Center (MCC) and currently during the Public Health Emergency: COVID-19 response.

In 2014, Elyzabeth began as an intern at the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management. She was then hired as an Emergency Management Specialist. She supported the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the Evacuation Support Unit aiding in the coordination efforts for the County’s vulnerable population community. She assisted the Recovery Manager during an activation of the Recovery Operations Center.

Brandi talked with Elyzabeth about her experience from 2016 to 2018 working with Seminole Tribe of Florida, a federally recognized Tribe, as an Emergency Management Coordinator. She routinely executed tabletop exercises for executive leadership in the Gaming Enterprise: Hard Rock International. During an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activation, she served as the Human Services Branch Director. In this role, Elyzabeth supported the six Seminole Tribe of Florida reservations during the Hurricane Irma response.

Brandi: What were the challenges that the tribe had when it came to emergency preparedness?

Elyzabeth: What I came to learn is that each indigenous group widely differs, but the one outlook they predominately share is the spiritual connections to their homelands. For some tribes, if you prepare for something, then they believe that it will happen. Prepare for a hurricane, and the hurricane will come. Prepare for an earthquake, and then the earthquake will come. It was a huge learning curve the first year trying to find a way to speak at community meetings about the importance of preparedness without using the word preparedness. I got very creative in learning how to talk about preparedness.

Brandi: What kind of training and education is needed for tribal nations to have a functioning emergency management/disaster preparedness system?

Elyzabeth: When I worked at Seminole Tribe, there were quite a few natural disasters that happened; one of them was Hurricane Irma. We really need to be mindful of how big tribes are in terms of being aware of their geographic locations. When responding to all of these disasters, which were mostly hurricanes, tribal emergency management must have a Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP). Having your HMP allows you to request assistance from FEMA. So, if you proclaim a declaration of an emergency without an HMP, you will not be considered to receive emergency assistant. In our first year, we had to write an HMP quickly because not only were we responding to the storm, but we were responding to a storm with no plan. I would recommend that everything a single tribe needs to make sure they have an HMP before an emergency happens. Get that requirement out of the way. An HMP is crucial. It identifies your hazards, your vulnerabilities and assesses those vulnerabilities. It guides you in identifying risks and vulnerabilities. Protects the community from future hazards. We need to ensure that we empower tribal nations to know how to write an HMP.

Brandi: What are some tribal resources non-tribal people need to know about?

Elyzabeth: During Hurricane Irma, the Seminole Tribe owned a Seminole petroleum company. Knowing that and working at different agencies, I know their resources and capabilities, so I know how we can partner together. I tell our partners to get into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Seminoles if we lose gas during an emergency such as a hurricane. Not only are we relying on partners with our community, but we are also creating relationships. Creating that comradery of the whole community approach is essential. The tribes have resources. Consider them when doing whole community planning. Knowing what they have beforehand is important during times of need. Show the tribes how you can aid them too.

Brandi: What are the biggest takeaways or lessons learned after being a tribal emergency manager?

Elyzabeth: I think it really taught me to know my community better. It has taught me to realize that it is important to know who our constituents are and really take the time to hear what they have to say. Thankfully, my experience is really barred none. Many people don’t have tribal experience. People have reached out to me for guidance on how to collaborate with tribes. I have different perspectives. So, the biggest takeaway for me was just really being open to listening to what the tribes had to say and respecting their culture. That may sound very obvious to us, but to other people, it is not like that at all. I wanted to retain that bond with the Seminole Tribe and continue to make that change for them even from a distance. That is always at the forefront.

Currently, Elyzabeth is pursuing an MPA & MPH dual degree at the University of Miami. She is also a member of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Committee for Hispanic and Latinx Advancement (CHALA). She serves as a Public Sector Ambassador, aiding in the English to Spanish translation of official weather-related content.