Floods, fires, hurricanes…nobody thinks it will happen to them, but Eli Russ knows it’s all about the planning.
Russ, 25 and a Washington resident, is an emergency management consultant and a certified EMT. His professional and volunteer experiences are focused on disaster planning, response, and operations management with a focus on the human side of incident management.
How did you get into this field?
In high school in New York, I got into this field as a volunteer doing local disaster response, so things like fires and floods. Then that translated into other volunteer roles as I entered college.
And then post-college, it turned into a full time job with the American Red Cross in the New York City area, helping to manage what they call mass care, which is really just how to take care of a lot of people all at once.
During that time, my day-to-day role was focused on that local level but when there was a big disaster somewhere else where they needed someone with my background and expertise in sheltering or operations management, then I’d get deployed for two to three weeks at a time. I’ve been to a lot of different places over the years.
What are some of those places?
California a couple of times for wildfires. Oklahoma for flooding and tornadoes. Hurricane Florence in Virginia. The Northern Mariana Islands near Guam for Super Typhoon Yutu.
Why does this field interest you?
I’ve always wanted to help people. This is a way to help a lot of people all at once, when they really need it the most. Nobody anticipates having an emergency, whether it’s affecting their community like it is now, or whether it’s affecting them personally like a home fire.
Whether it’s affecting one person or thousands of people, it’s still a disaster to the person that it’s happening to. Thinking about individuals and disaster survivors — and having their needs and thoughts put first — and then building the rest around them, is a good aspect to have in your planning.
As an emergency manager, our skill set at the fundamental level is to bring people together and have them talk to each other. That coordination is the crux of everything that we do. We don’t work in a vacuum. For example, in an emergency operation center, we would bring in representatives from local, state, and federal agencies.
Any specific moments that touched you?
There was a guy in a low income area who had a house fire. I was on call at the time and I responded, helped him out and provided assistance.
A couple weeks later, in the same neighborhood, an apartment building was evacuated because of a gas leak. And we were called to help them shelter people as a result of the gas leak.
In walks the guy from the house fire a few weeks before, and his family. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He said he was living in this apartment building that was just evacuated. Twice in a relatively short period of time his family’s been out and didn’t really have a place to turn.
He was appreciative of all the assistance that he was getting and he was handling it as best as he could. And he was just trying to move forward with his life and recover with his family, with that level of resilience.
I found myself again in a position to be able to provide some relief. I can’t turn people’s lives back to the way they were, but I can at least help for the short term.
Tell us about your current job at Hagerty Consulting.
I make emergency plans, training and exercises for different kinds of clients, usually government entities. It’s ranged from readying to respond to a terror attack, or how to recover after a disaster. Right now, I’m building training courses for FEMA staff.
What brought you to D.C.?
I started with Hagerty Consulting in New York City, and then they had this opportunity to work closely with FEMA. Before I agreed to move here, I did some quick research on what Jewish life would look like here, because that was a huge decision point for me. Once I did all that research, I was like, “Let’s do it.”
I’ve been enjoying D.C. I’m involved with Kesher Israel Congregation, where I typically attend Shabbat services and young professional events.
How does Judaism connect to this work?
I see them as intertwined. I volunteer as a Synagogue Security Team Volunteer with the nonprofit Community Security Service (CSS). They do volunteer security at synagogues, events, and institutions. I try to keep up-to-date on different threats, intelligence, and best practices in the field to be able to turn that into something good for everybody. I feel an obligation or responsibility at times, to bring my knowledge about crisis management and apply it to the Jewish world.
Have you done anything related to the pandemic? Any thoughts on our preparedness?
Global widespread pandemic has been the weak spot of American disaster preparedness.
During this pandemic, I’ve been able to volunteer at drive-through testing sites in D.C. through the Medical Reserve Corps.
We have hurricane season coming up in a couple of months. What’s that going to look like when a hurricane is coming towards the Gulf Coast? How is sheltering evacuation going to work in the COVID environment?
There’s a saying: “Disasters start and end locally,” and it has an individual impact. Just like what we’re seeing with COVID-19, our actions at a community level are decided based on what we’re doing at an individual level. It’s really up to all of us to be mindful of obtaining and following accurate, scientific official guidance and information, and educating ourselves to make healthy decisions.
Anna Lippe is a Washington-based writer.