s a kid, Luis Tapia ('06, '08 M.P.A.) loved watching Godzilla movies. It wasn't the oversized green sea monster that captivated Tapia, but a concern for the cities left behind in its terrorizing wake.
"I was always worried about those communities that Godzilla was stepping on and destroying," Tapia says. "I wondered, how can they be safe?"
That question of preparedness is one emergency planners and business continuity managers like Tapia -- a resiliency relationship manager for Fannie Mae and adjunct professor in UNT's emergency management and disaster science program -- answer every day. No matter the disaster, whether it be natural or manmade, building a proactive strategy is key.
UNT researchers and alumni work in areas such as emergency management and disaster science, computer science and logistics to mitigate human suffering and economic loss, not only following an event as people and businesses rebuild, but before the disaster has even happened. UNT faculty are exploring disasters' impact on tourism and have used data analytics to develop an evidence-based response planning tool to help emergency planners save time and money. They are researching home buyout programs in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, long-term recovery from Superstorm Sandy and disaster preparedness in Native American communities. And through UNT's Jim McNatt Institute for Logistics Research, faculty and students across disciplines seek to better understand logistics systems and why some businesses fail to reopen after disasters.
"Everyone has a role to play when it comes to disaster planning -- from the individual to the organizational level," Tapia says.
Since establishing the nation's first bachelor's degree program in emergency management in 1983, UNT has forged education in the field, equipping graduates for jobs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and American Red Cross. Others have found their calling in the private sector, helping to maintain business operations for global enterprises and ensure supply chains remain intact.
Tapia, who earned a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree and later a master's degree in emergency management and public administration, has already hit what he calls the "trifecta" by working for nonprofit, public and private organizations. During his first event as an emergency planner, he learned a valuable lesson: It takes a village.
In 2008, just a few months into Tapia's role as emergency management coordinator at UNT, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike barreled ashore in Texas and Louisiana, sending many fleeing from the Gulf Coast.
The UNT Coliseum became a temporary home to 278 evacuees, as members of the Mean Green family and Denton community rallied to assemble Hurricane Evacuation Shelters. Eighty student-athletes from Lamar University also were housed at Mean Green Village.
"In the middle of the night, there was a call -- and an army of students, faculty and staff showed up to help prepare the Coliseum for Gustav evacuees," Tapia says. "That was one of the fastest turn-arounds for putting a shelter together that I'd seen."
Tapia went on to work in similar roles for businesses, including Plano-based JCPenney and MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas. In his current job at Fannie Mae, he makes plans to ensure the national mortgage company can maintain its critical business processes despite unplanned disruptions, which could include anything from a data center failure or infectious disease outbreak to flooding and tornadoes.
"Before the disaster, it's about exercising plans and nurturing those relationships so that when a disaster does occur, we have built up our disaster muscle memory and are able to work in concert," he says.
For the last 19 years, since he started his first degree, Tapia has remained active in the UNT community whether he was a student, staff or faculty member. As an adjunct professor, he's educating the next generation of professionals in the same spirit his professors did.
"They challenged us to solve some of the significant problems society faces over and over again," Tapia says.
Everyone's heard the expression, "It's no use crying over spilled milk." But for Kevin Martin ('16), one of Tapia's former students, gallons of milk gushing from a tanker truck was a very real disaster.
"You wouldn't think that's bad, until it gets into the water," says Martin, who worked as an incident manager coordinating hazmat spill cleanups for CURA Emergency Services. "Milk changes the pH of water, and it can kill fish."
Now a disaster recovery coordinator for Paycom, an Oklahoma City-based payroll and HR software provider serving more than 23,500 clients across the country, Martin is focused on enhancing a business continuity plan.
"My goal is to make sure Paycom is prepared to handle any possible event, including natural disasters," says Martin, who majored in emergency management and public administration and minored in logistics.
His coursework at UNT laid a solid foundation for work in the field, he says. As vice president of UNT's International Association of Emergency Managers-Student Chapter, Martin met and learned from emergency planning professionals before ever graduating. As a business continuity intern his senior year for Southwest Airlines, he worked with supply chain management, helping identify critical suppliers for airplane parts if original suppliers were unavailable. And he's called upon former professors such as Tapia and Karen McCormick for advice.
Disasters can be a devastating blow to small businesses, with FEMA estimating that 40 to 60 percent fail to reopen.
"Having people like me in place helps everyone sleep easy at night," Martin says.
While working as a police communications specialist in Irving, Charla Marchuk ('08, '17 M.P.A.) started her bachelor's degree in emergency management at UNT. She knew the field was a good fit, but she wasn't sure how she wanted to make a difference in it. A floodplain management class brought everything into perspective.
"I knew right then what I wanted to do," Marchuk says.
UNT helped her secure an internship at private engineering and consulting firm Michael Baker Jr. Corp., where she learned about floodplain mapping and FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program.
Marchuk went on to work for the mitigation division of FEMA Region VI in Denton, first as a consultant and later as a floodplain specialist answering questions and providing guidance for floodplain situations in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
In 2016, as a graduate student in UNT's public administration program, ranked fifth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, she began teaching the floodplain management course that had inspired her several years earlier.
She remained an adjunct instructor until she accepted a promotion last fall to work as the national training coordinator for floodplain management at the FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
"Floodplain management is essential because it helps drive smart development in communities by keeping people and property safe from flooding," Marchuk says.
In the midst of disaster recovery, insight from floodplain management professionals helps local communities make more resilient building decisions. That powerful role became apparent while Marchuk was training employees for the post-Hurricane Harvey period.
"What you say can be so impactful," she says. "It was really important to me that our new hires were comfortable with the information and understood the basics of floodplain management and why we work so hard to support local community floodplain management programs before, during and after the event."
Marchuk says her work is increasingly driven by technology and data. Currently, she's working with UNT associate professor Laura Siebeneck on a needs assessment research project analyzing training gaps for local floodplain administrators in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.
"By using this data, FEMA can create new training opportunities for local floodplain administrators that are designed for their geographic region and floodplain management needs," Marchuk says.
Wendy Nelson ('79) transferred to North Texas in the fall of 1977 thinking she'd learn how to be a CPA.
Her plans changed quickly as she discovered her love for computers.
"I took a COBOL (Common Business- Oriented Language) class, and I just loved controlling the computer," Nelson says.
She ended up moving to the university's budding computer science program, which set the stage for her now decades-long career in the field.
Nelson has worked for a host of companies -- including Perot Systems Corp., Texas Instruments and the now-defunct Dresser Industries -- primarily programming the IBM Information Management System. The hierarchical system is used by companies around the world to store critical data for operations.
With IMS so vital to the companies she worked for, Nelson eventually found herself switching into roles in IT disaster recovery and business continuity, including her current role as IT risk and business continuity manager for Raytheon.
Days in advance of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017, Raytheon prepped sites expected to be impacted. Nelson's business unit -- Intelligence, Information and Services -- counts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as one of its customers, meaning many forecasters called upon Raytheon technology for the data needed to make their predictions about the storms.
But no matter how much you prepare, unexpected issues always arise, Nelson says.
With Harvey, the storm dropped so much water on Houston that many Raytheon employees found themselves on the roofs of their two-story homes to get away from the rising water. The floods also submerged many cell towers, limiting communication.
Raytheon sent basic living supplies to the city, and Nelson helped assemble a team to develop a cyber café that gave employees connectivity to the Raytheon systems. The defense contractor opened it up to others in the community, too.
"Business continuity is about protecting people, property and process," Nelson says. "The most important thing to any company is the people."