A passion and commitment to disaster relief and recovery—it started on a bicycle

December 12, 2017 Allison Ribachonek

A young professional’s path from Bike & Build to FEMA Public Assistance Program Delivery Manager has taken her from one disaster to the next

 

Disaster relief and recovery fuel my commitment to water resources engineering. This may sound unusual, wildly specific, and slightly dark, but my experience in these areas have only strengthened my resolve to do what is right and put people first.

Back in May 2012, I joined the nonprofit organization Bike & Build (B&B) on a journey that completely changed my life. As part of my Southern U.S. B&B team, I cycled nearly 4,200 miles from Jacksonville, Florida, to Monterey, California, raising awareness for the affordable housing crisis in the United States while volunteering with local organizations along my route.

 

The Southern U.S. Bike & Build team that started Allison Ribachonek on her journey from one natural disaster to the next.

 

This venture led me to SBP—a national organization recognized as a leader in disaster resilience and recovery—working on Mr. Oscar’s home in the 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. As my B&B venture came to a close in August and I pondered my next move, the choice soon became obvious. News of Hurricane Isaac’s path through New Orleans was all I could think about. I packed my car and made my way to Chalmette, Louisiana, to serve SBP as an Americorps Construction Site Supervisor. This position challenged me to my core! Rather than assuming my usual role as quiet observer, I quickly became an admired facilitator and leader of countless groups of volunteers from across the globe, rebuilding for homeowners and families like Mr. Oscar.

By October, a new disaster hit a personal note—Superstorm Sandy had battered the East Coast. My family is from all over New York City (Queens, Bronx, Harlem, Manhattan) and although I was doing meaningful work in Louisiana, I felt a pull from the north. By December, SBP had selected a small deployment team to share its disaster recovery model in the Rockaways and Brooklyn; I was on it.

 

Allison Ribachonek working as Americorps Construction Site Supervisor in New Orleans after Hurricane Isaac.

 

To this day, I carry with me the stories of families I served. Mr. Oscar’s house experienced 4-to-6-foot high floodwaters during Hurricane Katrina, and his house didn’t become a home again until seven years later. Can you imagine being displaced from your home for seven years? Imagine paying a mortgage for a home in which you cannot live AND staying at various friends’ and family members’ homes for seven years! I could not believe Mr. Oscar’s humility, patience, and gratitude given such circumstances.

I will also never forget Arthur, one of my clients in the Rockaways, part of Queens, New York. Arthur's father built their bungalow-style home back in the 1930s from the ground up and lived there prior to the storm. When I first visited the house, most of their furniture was consolidated to one small, damaged room near the entrance while the rest of the house had been mostly gutted. Before my volunteers arrived, Arthur gave me a tour of his memories, the two of us together taking calculated steps from one bare floor joist to the next, as he pointed out the remaining work with which he needed help. A two-time lung cancer survivor, I could tell Arthur's cough was aggravated by the mold growing inside.

 

The remains of a house in the Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy.

 

It’s no wonder I began my career with Stantec working on the Permanent Canal Closures and Pumps (PCCP) project in New Orleans. My work with SBP in New Orleans and New York City primed me for the project management I provided as a liaison between our designers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And now, three years later, I am in Florida as a FEMA Public Assistance Program Delivery Manager to support communities impacted by Hurricane Irma. My personal goal is to assist survivors in receiving every possible dollar for which they are eligible to rebuild their community’s infrastructure.

Since Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac, Superstorm Sandy, and every flood in between and beyond, I have agonized about how we can continue to refine disaster response and recovery. How can we make our response timelier and our intervention more effective? It is with great pride and focus that I begin this next venture to meet the challenges of efficient community-centered disaster recovery.

Stay tuned as I plan to share updates from my team’s adventure in Florida and how we are helping those affected by Hurricane Irma.

About the Author

Allison Ribachonek

Allison is an EIT with experience in hydrologic and hydraulic modeling, floodplain analysis and delineation, and environmental documentation. Her experience both in engineering design and in the field are driven by her passion and advocacy for disaster relief and recovery.

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