Maria Bouffard: A Career in Emergency Management

May 22, 2018

Back to Veoci BlogMaria Bouffard: A Career in Emergency Management

This is Part 2 in a two part series. Previously, we talked with Maria about how she prepared for commencement every year. Now we’re going to jump into her career and how she dedicated it to emergency management. Read Part 1 here.

Maria Lavandier Bouffard, CEM, CBCP, is a master in the field of emergency management.  A practitioner and leader for 20 years, she has seen it all - from managing evacuees in the Houston Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina, developing IAPs for the state of CT West IMT, and overseeing Yale University commencements. Her passion for what she does, the breadth of knowledge that she has, and the range of situations she's been involved in make her a true stand out among emergency managers.

Starting Out

Maria has had a long and successful career in this field blazing new trails in each role and brought a whole new dimension of responsibility to them.  Maria began her career in the 1990s as an advocate for people impacted by tragedy.  She started with AmeriCorps and participated in an 10 month program working with the National Civilian Community Corps. The team's first project was working with survivors and family members affected by one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks in U.S. history: the Oklahoma City Bombing. A year after the event, Maria and the National Civilian Community Corps started work on the mourning to memorializing project, an initiative for the area surrounding the site. The team cleaned up and beautified the area, and catalogued and archived belongings left around the site by visitors. This was Maria's first interaction with the Red Cross and emergency management. After this, she said she “was committed to volunteer for the Red Cross,” and she continued to do just that. She immersed herself in classes and training, and when a position opened up, she jumped for it.

Learning Emergency Management

Old structures like the Houston Astrodome can be very useful in large scale emergency management operations.

In 1997, Maria joined the Red Cross to continue her humanitarian work. It became an 11 year journey for her, eventually leading her to the position of Response Planning Supervisor.  From 2003 to 2008, Maria worked out of the Southwest Service Area in Houston, Texas. During these years, the hurricanes that hit the marshlands, bayous, and swamps of Louisiana and Southeastern Texas took a significant toll on the populations there. Maria was part of a team which ran the Houston Astrodome for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, where they sheltered around 67,000 people over the course of three weeks following the disaster. Hurricane Katrina led to a re-evaluation of the foundations of federal emergency management programs and priorities, and a search for new approaches and best practices. Maria's efforts in Houston contributed to a new wave of understanding of the importance of preparedness and planning, across all industries and organizations.

A Change of Pace

2007 and 2008 opened many people's eyes to the importance of having robust emergency management programs and departments. Two events from these years spurred higher education institutions across the country to fully develop their own emergency management departments: the Virginia Tech shooting and the possibility of a bird flu epidemic.

"Having a plan is having a foundation. You’re better equipped to absorb novel things as they come."

Yale University was in that group, and they brought on Maria to build their emergency management department in 2008. With years of knowledge from her time at the Red Cross, she developed a structured and resilient program at Yale, one capable of guiding the entire school through any crisis.

Emergency management at the university level presents unique challenges, even for long-time practitioners.

“Everybody realized it was critical and necessary,” Maria said. Over time, she built a team consisting of 70 plus members spanning over 30 departments. It was a massive cultural change for the organization. “When people came to the table, they were used to being asked ‘Hey, what can you do?’ We evolved and said, “This is your road to keep clean and work on,’ so everybody understands their responsibilities now. So when the going gets tough, everybody gets going.”

Lessons and Takeaways

Bringing about a cultural shift at this scale wasn’t easy, but Maria practiced what she preached. She knew exactly how to get the whole organization involved with emergency management. Naturally, some of these subjects can be tough. The barriers will be psychological. “When you say ‘active shooter’ or ‘civil unrest’, people don’t even want to talk about it,” Maria said. “You have to plant the seed, you have to keep watering that seed.” Get them acclimated to the topic. Let them see how their responsibilities and the situation mix. “Eventually they’ll come to the table. They’ll either come kicking and screaming, or they’ll talk about it slowly, until they’re comfortable with it.” Getting everyone to understand why plans are important is crucial too. “Having a plan is having a foundation. You’re better equipped to absorb novel things as they come. With a foundation you’re comfortable and open with, you can make creative decisions.” They’re more than blueprints—they’re living documents that evolve alongside the situation. And lastly, you have to know your role. “The best way to describe an emergency manager is a master of collaboration and coordination. They have to be persistent. They have to be tenacious. Our role is to know the people who do the work, to mobilize them. So yeah, I’m an emergency manager for sure.”

Read Part 1, where we cover how Maria prepared for commencement during her time as Yale University's Director of Emergency Management.Thousands of students travel around the globe for their educations every year. See how universities keep track of all the bustle by using travel registries. 

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