By Dan Linehan
---- — Nicole Wamma knew she wanted to give back to her country through service work while traveling. So when she applied to AmeriCorps and learned about its new disaster recovery unit, FEMA Corps, Wamma was in.
Her 10-person team completed its first assignment in May in New York City, and after a debriefing at its California home, is on its way to Washington, D.C.
Wamma, who grew up in Mankato and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter in 2012 with a degree in music performance, hadn't heard about the FEMA Corps, which started last year. But she figured disaster relief would be interesting work and great job experience.
Five months in, the 22-year-old said it has been interesting, though she's spent more time behind a desk than you might expect for someone working in disaster recovery.
After training for about six weeks in Sacramento, Calif., Wamma went to her first assignment, in the New York City borough of Queens. For the next two months, her team would be collecting data on about 3,800 properties in the flood plain, as defined by properties that had previously filed for flood insurance with the government.
Her days started in an extended-stay hotel, from which Wamma and her teammates commuted to work, generally in a van. Some days, she would drive to one of the city's five boroughs and do field work, recording size, foundation type, building type, taxable value and other building characteristics.
Other days, she would enter the records in a database that FEMA will give to state and local officials. It will help local governments protect flood-prone properties and will perhaps help dissuade people from building in a flood plain.
After the team left Queens, in mid-May, they went back to California for a debriefing. They left on Monday for their new assignment. The van was rolling through a Utah desert as she spoke with a reporter this week.
She'll be working with photos and video, doing media outreach and working as a liaison with other departments. She'll also be working with victims of 2012's Hurricane Sandy.
“I'm really looking forward to this round,” she said. “All of those things sound really interesting to me.”
FEMA Corps is open to youth age 18 to 24, and Wamma encouraged people to apply. “I would say any service program is a great experience and a great choice. You get lots of diversity of experiences and it'll help prepare you for anything later in life.”
It's not isolating socially; Wamma “does everything” with the 10 people in her team.
When the program is at full capacity of 1,600 members, FEMA expects it to save taxpayers about $60 million a year.
When the program is at full operational capability, and in an average disaster year, a savings of about $60 million annually is estimated.