Please tell us about yourself
IEM President and CEO Madhu Beriwal has almost 3 decades of experience in disaster and emergency management, homeland security, national defense, and the use of information technology to resolve complex protection issues.
Prior to founding IEM, she worked for the State of Louisiana, focusing on floodplain management and hurricane evacuations for the City of New Orleans and surrounding areas. In 1984, she received a Special Merit award from the Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Association for her achievements in hurricane emergency preparedness.
For more than two decades, she has been dedicated to the use of technology to enhance preparedness and response. She was involved with some of the earliest efforts by FEMA to integrate technology and emergency management, and taught courses in evacuation planning and the use of computers in emergency management at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. She also led an effort to develop response tools for a public protection program mandated by the EPA after the Bhopal disaster in 1984. Since then, she has played a key role in developing requirements analysis for multi-million dollar emergency management software tools, analyzing and recommending information technology staffing, and developing architecture and tools for simulation-based acquisition—all for protection programs with lifecycle budgets ranging to more than $2B. She has provided strategic direction for numerous modeling and simulation studies whose results drive policy, strategy, and investment decisions at the Federal, state, and local levels.
How did you end up in the offbeat, unconventional and unique emergency management field?
My first job after graduating was with Louisiana’s Office of Emergency Preparedness (now the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness), serving as program manager of a Hurricane Evacuation Study for Southeast Louisiana.
When I took that on, this gentleman who worked for the city of New Orleans told me that three other studies had failed and that I wouldn’t be able to “herd the cats” in order to get the job done. It wasn’t the technical work that was challenging. It was actually getting people to collaborate with each other.
Eventually, I understood that I needed to get one of these (local) civil defense directors to help me. That turned out to be Paul Connick, who was the director for Jefferson Parish. He really helped to pull that study together. He’s also Harry Connick, Jr’s uncle. Harry Connick was not known at that time. Paul kept telling me that he had this nephew who played the piano really well.
Where did you go to college?
I went to school at the University of Calcutta for my bachelors (Geography and Economics. And for my masters, I was at the University of Kansas.
What did you study in school?
I have a Master’s degree in Urban Planning with a focus on Transportation and Land Use. For my bachelors, I majored in geography and economics. I wanted to study geology, but that wasn’t considered a womanly occupation. There were no real career choices open to me, because it was not expected that I would work. I was expected to get married in an arranged marriage and that would be that.
What do you like best about your job?
I like being able to envision “what could be”–either for emergency management or for IEM (Innovative Emergency Management)—and then defining a design for getting there. I enjoy that process in any context. For example, I enjoy modern architecture and all forms of garden design. Good design leads to good results – on both large and small scales.
Has the fact that you’re a woman in a field that’s dominated by men made your career any more challenging?
I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about it, but on balance, I would say “Yes”.
I believe there is a perception that women are not as competent as men in the emergency management field. A male Army colonel and good friend once told me that the perception of men is that they don’t care, but they know—implying that they are perceived as competent, but unfeeling. And the perception of women is that they care, but they don’t know. I have found this to be often true. Women still have to strive to prove they are competent – in virtually every field, including emergency management.
In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about emergency management?
Most emergency managers (myself included) subscribe to the philosophy famously quoted by German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” However, the public seems to believe differently. They believe there is a perfect response plan that can be perfectly applied in every disaster situation. The planning process allows emergency personnel to get to know one another, to think through some of the expected tough problems, and to identify the resources available. But, response to a real event will require some degree of improvisation and problem-solving.
Who do you consider to be your primary mentor and why?
My earliest and best mentor was my father, a successful and respected businessman in India. He loved to design solutions to engineering and technical problems at his steel plants. He loved to read. One of my earlier memories is reading the newspaper or a book to him — when his eyes were tired at the end of the day. I learned a great deal from him about working hard and also a profound respect for people, wherever they were in an organization’s hierarchy.
Do you remember your first contact with NEMA?
I first learned about NEMA in the early 1990’s from Myra Lee, the director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management. At the time, emergency management was a small discipline, so I was delighted to learn that there was an organization dedicated specifically to that area.
NEMA is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month and you are the longest serving private sector member. What do you see as the biggest change in how NEMA has evolved?
NEMA was initially focused on natural hazards, but has been able to expand and evolve that focus as needs have changed. After Bhopal, the focus expanded to include fire services and hazardous materials. After 9/11, the focus evolved again to include homeland security, but without giving up NEMA’s traditional role in emergency management. After Hurricane Katrina, more emphasis was put on catastrophic disasters.
And what about emergency management’s evolution – what’s been the biggest change there?
Seminal events like Hurricane Andrew, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina have had a profound impact on the field by making it much more visible. Before Hurricane Andrew, if you said you were an emergency manager, no one knew what that was. Today, everyone knows. As a result, the public is much more reliant on emergency management for safety and security and demands much more from it. The biggest change is that we are more visible and more relevant – and the other side of that coin is that more is demanded of us and we have to be more accountable.
Where would you like the association to be in 10 years when it celebrates its 50th anniversary?
Even though we’ve experienced some seminal disasters, we haven’t yet cracked the code on building a robust, agile, effective system of managing emergencies that delivers what the public wants. Achieving that kind of system requires close collaboration between all key stakeholders—Congress, NEMA, state and local emergency management, and the private sector. In 10 years, I would like to see NEMA leading the charge in forging the relationships and paving the paths for development of a more reliable and effective emergency management system for the 21st century. I would like NEMA to be the central leadership organization for professional development of emergency managers and especially, for promoting gender diversity in emergency management.
What advice would you give a person just starting out in emergency management?
Today, emergency management is a large field with many options. You can be a planner, work in recovery or mitigation, focus on flood or earthquakes, or take other paths. Because there are so many opportunities, it’s important to sample a few areas before deciding which path to follow. And perhaps even more importantly, emergency management is an extremely demanding field and is not right for everyone. If you’re not passionate about it, it may not be the right career choice for you.