Third Thursday Interview: Vanesa Urango

Welcome to another edition of our Third Thursdays! This week we are profiling Vanesa Urango, who works with FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and is the State Public Assistance Coordinator in New Hampshire. Vanesa and I met when we were in graduate school together in New Hampshire, although our overlapped time together was short since she was a year or so ahead of me in the program. I was excited to chat with her, catch up on how she’s been, and learn more about her position (which has always seemed so interesting to me, but I’d never gotten the full details until now!)

Vanesa grew up in a couple of different places, spending some time in Texas and North Carolina, before her family eventually moved across the country to Maine. Growing up, she loved thunderstorms and has fond memories of watching The Weather Channel more than cartoons! However, she never really considered meteorology as a career path until she was a senior in high school meeting with her guidance counselor. When mapping out a plan for life after high school, her guidance counselor asked what types of things she enjoyed. After some discussion, Vanesa was excited to learn she could actually make a career out of weather, something she loved! She applied to different colleges, but ultimately decided that Plymouth State University was the best fit for her. Although, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion though…the teachers, curriculum, atmosphere are the best! Plus, the quaint campus is only an hour away from the gorgeous White Mountains. (Can you tell I’m biased? Ha! Seriously though, for any students interested in meteorology, I highly recommend their program!) When Vanesa and I were chatting, I asked her about some of the coolest experiences she has had so far in life. One of them? The first time she ever drove through Franconia Notch (a major mountain pass that cuts through the White Mountains of New Hampshire) for a campus ski day trip.

View of Echo Lake in Franconia Notch. Courtesy Franconia Notch Regional Chamber of Commerce.

While in graduate school for meteorology, Vanesa wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to after graduation. She sought advice from one of the professors, who asked if she had thought about emergency management. At the time, this wasn’t an area that Vanesa had even considered as an opportunity, so she applied for an internship with the State of New Hampshire – and she got it! She became the first weather intern the state had ever had and worked closely with the team there for two months. While interning, she helped put together a comprehensive weather training for the staff there.

After graduation, she first got a part-time job with the state working with the School Preparedness Office, where she reviewed school preparedness plans. Although it wasn’t exactly what she’d dreamed of, she dedicated herself to learn all that she could while in that position. After six or seven months in that position, she was hired full-time in operations with the state. When she was first starting out, her boss gave her some advice that she thinks is some of the best advice she’s ever received, “Be a sponge. Say yes to everything. Even if it seems like a menial task, such as taking notes at a meeting, do it. You never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet from saying yes.” She says this is the attitude who helped her make a connection with someone who ended up inviting her to join the Hurricane Liaison Team for FEMA Region I.

So what does a normal day look like for a Public Assistance Coordinator? Normally, Vanesa works a 8-4 shift, Monday through Friday…but when crisis hits, she can work well over 40 hours a week. She also assists the state with every type of emergency (she’s currently working on six different events), from snow storms and flash flooding to the recent COVID crisis. She’s on call 24/7, and she worked 105 hours when COVID hit. While that week was definitely exhausting, and she loves her regular schedule, she enjoys the excitement of applying her weather knowledge to different events. While she wasn’t hired as a meteorologist, her colleagues at the state will come to her first for weather information, or ask her to act as a liaison with the National Weather Service. In addition to loving all these things, she really enjoys the flexibility and learning about grants, law regulation, and policy that comes with having a state position. One of the coolest experiences she’s had in her current position is when she was deployed to the Region IV Regional Coordination Center for Hurricane Dorian. Due to the slow-moving nature of the storm, she spent nine days there and thoroughly enjoyed listening to states make their decisions, learning how they collaborate, and explaining and distilling information for all of their partners.

In addition to working at the state, she also works part-time at Plymouth State University, where she teaches Severe and Hazardous Weather for students who aren’t majoring in meteorology. She also visits the school to talk with graduate students about emergency management. When she’s not working, she enjoys spending time outside and she’s currently on track to finish her goal of hiking all 48 4’000 foot mountains in New Hampshire this summer!

To wrap up our chat, Vanesa shared some great tips and things she’s learned throughout her career. First, don’t put off the things you don’t want to do (whether you just don’t want to do it or you’re just a little nervous). You have to meet deadlines. Second, don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve made a mistake. She also wanted to encourage those who are studying meteorology and interested in emergency management to pursue internships. Even if they’re unpaid, she believes that the connections you make are huge and can really help you in your career.

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