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Disaster Diva

In a trailblazing career, Claire B. Rubin ’61 has earned her stripes as a national expert on disaster recovery.

As she surfed the web on a recent morning, seeking news of disaster,Claire B. Rubin ’61 was dismayed to read of an outbreak of deadly tornadoes in Alabama. Sifting through the media flurry that followed, however, she discerned a hopeful sign. 

“One of the local churches was actually constructed to be a crisis center, knowing that local people lived in mobile homes and very flimsy, fragile modular homes, and that winds of 100 mph would just take them apart,” Rubin says. “The church was built to withstand high winds, and their kitchen and bathroom facilities were designed to accommodate [large numbers of people]. And that was a smart decision.”

Such foresight, Rubin says, is rare. In the service of making it less so, she has spent most of her professional life documenting the process of disaster recovery to provide a frame of reference for officials and agencies forced to contend with the aftermath of tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other natural and man-made disasters. As an emergency-management consultant—and in books, lectures, papers, charts, textbooks, blogs and other media—she has offered the lessons of 40 years in a profession she had a hand in creating.

“I just keep tossing stuff out there,” she says, “in the hope that it’s helpful.”

Rubin is a nationally recognized expert in disaster recovery rather than response. Although she hasn’t been among the first responders to scenes— “the hit-the-deck kind of people,” as she calls them—Rubin has still seen some adventures. 

After Hurricane Hugo slammed through the Caribbean and the southeastern United States in 1989, Rubin accompanied a team to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. She recalls a wild ride in a rental car with a broken windshield—rushing to comply with an evening curfew—and arriving at a hotel where the rugs had been torn up and stuffed under doors in a futile attempt to stop water from sluicing through the rooms. She also notes that the dangers of such disasters don’t end when the wind does. Following a severe illness related to exposure in the aftermath of Hugo, she decided to give up field work.

“It’s too risky,” she says. “We were in places that were unsanitary, driving vehicles that weren’t safe. You have standing water, and things blowing around and all kinds of nasty stuff in the water and the air.” 

What Rubin chose to do instead was continue generating, curating and sharing information to help communities, states and nations prepare more effectively for unexpected catastrophes. Since 1990, her firm, Claire B. Rubin & Associates, LLC, has specialized in research and consulting in emergency management and homeland security. This has included providing technical expertise on disaster mitigation, emergency management research, and intergovernmental relations, and creating educational products including the Disaster Timeline Series and the Disaster Bookstore.

As a public service, Rubin also personally maintains several websites on disaster topics, most notably Recovery Diva, where for the last nine years she has been building, through daily posts, a searchable archive of news and other publications related to emergency management generally and disaster recovery in particular. She also writes a blog called Disasters and Faith, which features news and resources related to faith-based organizations responding to disasters, and she is the co-founder and moderator for three Facebook groups related to emergency management. Her goal is to narrow what she describes as a growing gap between the people she calls “knowledge creators”—those who have studied emergency management or have actual experience in the field—and policymakers and practitioners.

“The knowledge about disasters is ahead of what people actually do,” Rubin says. “A lot of things we know about aren’t being acted upon, aren’t being taken into consideration.” Chief among these, she says, is climate change, an urgent problem she believes deserves more than a piecemeal response.

“We have a new set of problems these days, in that this administration won’t do the kind of strategic planning that’s necessary in light of climate change and sea level rise and other kinds of very predictable problems, since they’re in denial about some of these larger forces,” Rubin says. “So obviously FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] isn’t going to be fully ready to deal with these kinds of forces.”

Rubin’s journey from government major at Simmons to recognized disaster recovery expert has been far from conventional, and it began with two practical suggestions from one of her professors. In 1960, as Rubin tells it, Professor Josephine Milburn suggested Rubin apply for the Washington Semester Program, a partnership with American University (AU) in which Simmons students could live in Washington, D.C., experience tours and special lectures during the day, and attend classes at AU at night. Rubin took her advice.

“It was exciting,” she says, “and for anybody seriously interested in government, it was a terrific opportunity. It was a very good program, and we met people from all over the country. One of those connections would later turn out to be rather useful for getting a job.” 

Milburn also recommended a Federation of Women’s Clubs fellowship that Rubin subsequently won, allowing her to earn a master’s degree in government through a graduate program at Boston University. A year later, holding a newly minted master’s, Rubin entered the job market—and endured a series of frustrations.

“This was 1962,” Rubin says. “Here I had a master’s degree, and I didn’t want to be a secretary, and I didn’t want to be somebody’s administrative assistant, and I just wasn’t finding professional opportunities. The discrimination [against women] still was pretty rampant.”

At her mother’s suggestion, she took the Federal Civil Service Exam, returned to Washington and, in a matter of weeks, she was getting job offers. She worked first for the Department of Labor and then for the newly created Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her minors at Simmons turned out to be more advantageous than her major. 

“When I first moved to Washington,” Rubin says, “people said, ‘Huh, a degree in government, political science, that’s nice, but everyone here in town has that degree, what else do you do?’ But I also had a strong minor in economics and statistics, and so a couple of the early jobs were in that area.”

A few years later, at a Washington Semester reunion, she reconnected with a colleague who had been in her cohort. He was now leading the contract research section of the International City Managers Association (ICMA), the professional association for city and county managers in the United States and Canada, and he invited Rubin to apply to that organization. Soon, she was working on urban projects ranging from law enforcement to fire service to environmental protection. 

“The knowledge about disasters is ahead of what people actually do. A lot of things we know about aren’t being acted upon, aren’t being taken into consideration.” —Claire B. Rubin ’61

The move to emergency management came about, she says, when President Carter’s science advisors began working to implement the 1977 National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Act. The law established a long-term earthquake risk reduction program for the country, and as part of a campaign to solicit public input, the White House needed administrators to speak with mayors and other public officials across the country about the earthquake risk in their communities. Staff came to ICMA to ask if they could help.

“At that time,” Rubin says, “most people were aware that Alaska and California had earthquakes, but we didn’t know that Boston was vulnerable, that New York is vulnerable—the Palisades area—and Charleston, and Memphis. Anyway, we said ‘Sure, we can organize gatherings of public officials and talk about earthquake risk and this new law.’ And that was when I transitioned into emergency management work.”

When Carter established FEMA in 1979, Rubin won some of the first grant money in emergency management for the ICMA. She organized meetings around disaster risk, introducing the idea of emergency management to the broader public. Rubin also became an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University, where she later was affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management. Since 1983, she has been a consultant to public agencies, academic institutions and other organizations engaged in hazards/disasters and emergency management. 

While Rubin has enjoyed the work, she points out that many of the jobs she has held would be nearly impossible to attain in 2019 without a Ph.D. She also describes the challenges she faced as a freelancer in an emerging industry—one especially vulnerable to the whims of local and national politics.

“There was a lack of a clear channel and a path,” she says, “and, frankly, even a lack of people to follow and emulate their careers. Because we were sort of making it up as we went along.”

The author or editor of three books to date, Rubin is currently working on an introduction for the third edition of a popular textbook for which she is the editor, Emergency Management: The American Experience.She tends her blogs daily, recently delivered guest lectures at Virginia Tech and Georgetown University, and remains grateful to the college (now a university) where it all began. To help other students follow in her Simmons footsteps, she established The Claire B. Rubin ’61 Endowed Scholarship Fund in 2017.

“Simmons was wonderful,” she says, “It was small enough that you knew the faculty and staff. It was a nice, friendly place, and it was a good education. I was lucky to get off to a good, sound start.”