Miriam Belblidia, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer – Water Works, L3C
Miriam Belblidia (MPA 2009) came to GSPIA knowing she wanted to study disaster management. Ten years later, she is at the helm of an innovative water management company, Water Works, in New Orleans, working across the disciplines of science, art, and history to build community resilience.
“It was around the [aftermath] of Katrina, and those issues were on my mind,” she recalls in describing her choice to study at GSPIA. “[I heard that] one of the leaders in the field was at Pitt.” Miriam reached out to that leader, Dr. Louise Comfort, founder of the Center for Disaster Management, who supported Miriam’s application to the school and later became her academic mentor. “What was really of value to me was getting to work with great professors. I ended up doing my independent research project under Louise and George Dougherty (Assistant Professor in Public Administration)." Miriam’s research focused on building community resilience through social networking sites, which was forward-leaning at a time when such sites were in their infancy. Her work was ultimately published in the International Journal of Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management.
While at GSPIA, Miriam obtained an internship with the University of New Orleans’ Center for Hazard Assessment, Response, and Technology (UNO-CHART), where she worked with Dr. John Kiefer on assisted evacuation planning. “Part of our problem was getting traction with the local government,” Miriam says, so she volunteered to deliver materials to local nonprofits on behalf of the City’s Office of Homeland Security. That gesture not only bolstered the City’s involvement in her internship project, but later—when she moved back to New Orleans after graduating—supported her in becoming a Hazard Mitigation Specialist with the City. “They already knew me, which goes along way,” she says. During her time with the City, Miriam also received a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship in Water Management to conduct research in the Netherlands through the Technical University of Delft’s Hydraulic Engineering Department. She applied this research to improve hazard mitigation strategy and policy in New Orleans.
In 2012, Miriam began to think about the ways in which she could most powerfully influence community resilience in New Orleans—and she decided it would be through relationship-based, community-driven approaches drawing across the disciplines of science, art, and history. “If you don’t have official power,” Miriam says, “you have to develop relationships, especially in an area like New Orleans. Having relationships with folks is the only way to get things done.”
In that spirit, Miriam decided to start her own socially conscious, low-profit company, Water Works, to focus on community-driven solutions to building resilience and reducing risk. Her company serves individual community members, businesses, and government agencies through diverse education, empowerment, training, and consulting services. Miriam and Water Works have led revision of the New Orleans Hazard Mitigation Plan, developed a residential guide for water management, and served as founding members of the Greater New Orleans Water Collaborative. In the next year, they hope to lead a community-driven update to the New Orleans Urban Water Plan and develop a space where residents and visitors can learn about water. “In New Orleans in particular, we have such a strong culture of arts and music, and that’s a good way to communicate,” Miriam says about Water Works’ approach. “There’s no central resource [where] you can go to learn about water—my dream is to incorporate the elements of science, history, workforce development, and art into a community space.”
CDM spoke to Miriam days after the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and asked for her reflections on how emergency management has since evolved—and should continue to evolve. “Obviously, there is sometimes a need for command-and-control approaches in disasters, but I witnessed the limits of that in working in the community. Going into nursing homes and helping to educate people is not the place for command-and-control, it’s the place for community trust-building and engagement that is sensitive to the trauma people have faced in prior disasters like Katrina. Something that encourages me is that you’re seeing folks from more diverse perspectives going into emergency management and hazard mitigation. The field needs more diversity from public health, social work, social science, engineering, but racially as well.”
Miriam suggests that all GSPIA students should have some understanding of emergency management. “Even if you don’t want to work directly in emergency management, you should consider how it relates to [your field],” she advises.