Aggies to work with FEMA

FEMA program specialist trainer Reginald Ward works with Texas A&M University engineering students as they perform the necessary training to serve as site inspection interns with the agency in January.

Eagle photo by Steve Kuhlmann

With the holidays fast approaching -- or even already here for some -- it can be easy to forget the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey earlier this year and the reality that for some, full recovery is still out of reach. Between semesters, more than 30 Texas A&M University engineering students are stepping up to do their part in the recovery effort along the Texas coast through a 10-day volunteer internship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The students -- who wrapped up finals last week -- are now midway through a week-long, 40-hour site inspection training course administered by FEMA professionals on the A&M campus, where they are being prepared for their service in the field after the new year begins.

Mark Weichold -- who serves as associate dean for academic affairs, executive director of the Halliburton Engineering Global Program and as a regents professor of electrical and computer engineering at A&M -- said it makes him proud as both an engineer and an Aggie to see these students giving of their vacation time to serve their neighbors and fellow Texans.

"It makes me proud to see these young people taking their responsibilities as an engineer seriously," Weichold said. "As a former student and a professor in the College of Engineering, it makes me really proud to see these young people doing this. It sort of exemplifies the Aggie spirit, in my opinion."

The students will be paired with mentors from the agency and sent out into the field to assess public infrastructure -- ranging from roads and bridges to wastewater treatment plants and other public facilities -- as part of the agency's public assistance program.

Herman Zepeta, a class of '20 mechanical engineering major, said although his family in the Cypress area did not experience the direct damage that some of their neighbors did during the storm, seeing the effects first-hand inspired him to get involved.

"Just being able to help out is something I'm really taking pride in," Zepeta said. "I feel like the benefits completely outweigh giving time from my vacation. ... As soon as I saw the opportunity, I really wanted to do it, because I really think it's interesting to see how people go into these disasters head first and how they work to recover from it."

Reginald Ward, a FEMA program specialist trainer, said he admires the willingness of the students to get involved and lend support to affected communities -- the same sentiment he said encouraged him to join the agency as well.

A native of Louisiana, Ward -- who joined FEMA more than five months ago -- said he knows all too well the damage that can be left in the aftermath of hurricanes.

Ward said he expects the nearly three dozen students to "do really well" once they get the opportunity to make it out into the field.

"It's amazing to see people going out to try to help other people, and I'm proud to be a part of that," he said. "... It's fun to watch the students learn and grasp this, and they're so excited about it. I think they're going to do well at it, and hopefully some of them will stick with it."

Traci Brasher, director of the FEMA Region 6 Recovery Division and deputy federal coordinating officer for Hurricane Harvey, said the partnership is the first of its kind to pair university students with the federal agency and came about just over a month ago during a November visit to Houston by FEMA Administrator Brock Long. Brasher said the partnership came about after a meeting between Long, Texas A&M University System Chancellor and Commissioner of the Rebuild Texas initiative John Sharp and other state officials.

She said over the past month, several teams worked together to design the partnership as a way to see how universities such as Texas A&M with "a plethora of students who through their major and interest in helping their community can really be a part of recovery and our programs with FEMA."

"From the top down, we had the support of the leadership to form this partnership and to try this," she said. "... As you know, with government, things don't tend to happen this fast, but I've know working with Chancellor Sharp and Rebuild Texas throughout the recovery that they are very much about cutting through red tape and getting things done."

Though still early, Brasher said she expects the "amazing" partnership developed between FEMA and Texas A&M in the Rebuild Texas initiative to continue to be productive in the months and years ahead.

Brasher said she "can't wait" to see the students get out into the field and have a chance to experience what it is like to be a part of the federal response process.

"In one respect I'm overwhelmed by the number of students who have shown up to participate over their winter break, but on the other hand its just another example of Texas A&M, its commitment and what the university stands for," Brasher said. "I'm very proud to be a part of it."

Freshman mechanical engineering major Olusola Babatunde said he jumped at the opportunity to help out and hopefully lend some aid along with his fellow Aggies to FEMA operations in Houston. Babatunde said after two of his best friends who attend school in Houston were affected, he felt it was important for him to find some way to serve.

"If just a week of training can teach me how to help a bunch of people affected by the hurricane, I couldn't really say no to it," Babatunde said. "... Learning how to solve these problems and maybe even prevent them in the future is an unbelievable advantage that I'd love to earn."

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