When O’Neill alumna Mary Moran (BSCJ’00, MSCJPS’13) stepped out of her vehicle in Sullivan, Indiana, on April 1, she knew there was a long recovery ahead.
“It was catastrophic destruction,” she recalls.
The small town had taken a direct hit from a strong EF-3 tornado the night before. As the Director of Emergency Management and Preparedness for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Moran was there to help assess the damage and see what state or federal assistance local leaders needed.
“We work the emergency management cycle, all the way from preparedness to planning to event response to short- and long-term recovery, making the community more resilient for the next event,” Moran explains.
Moran’s team works with county emergency management directors to understand what happened before, during, and after a disaster, as well as what they need to address the situation.
“We essentially become the 911 for 911,” she says. “When a county has expended its resources, we’re the next level of help.”
Moran presents the information gathered to the governor and federal agencies to make a case for additional resources for Indiana communities.
Serving those communities is what matters most to her. After all, she’s a Hoosier herself, born and raised in Indianapolis. She says her community-minded upbringing built her desire to help others—and her O’Neill education gave her the skills to make it happen.
After earning her undergraduate degree, Moran began working for the State Emergency Management Agency. She put her O’Neill lessons in policy, statistical analysis, and research to work as she advanced within the agency. But when it came time to make a bigger leap, she knew she needed more than experience to level up.
“Public safety is a very male-dominated field,” she says. “I felt that if I wanted to overcome that hurdle, I needed a master’s degree—in addition to my existing experience—to receive the credibility and the opportunities I wanted.”
At 47 years old, Moran went back to school to earn her Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Public Safety. She says the program helped advance the lessons she learned as an undergrad while teaching her important practical lessons about managing projects with a variety of personalities, work ethics, and styles.
“The O’Neill program has allowed me to have a lifelong career and really set me up for being an executive staff member at IDHS,” she says. “I am 100% certain that my two O’Neill degrees are at least 70% of the reason why I now sit in this chair.”
After 23 years in emergency management, what Moran sees as she sits in that chair is that the nature of natural disasters is changing.
“The events we’re seeing may be shorter in duration, but they are more intense and happen more frequently,” she explains. “If you look at the trend, these disasters are getting much more significant and expensive. Our past five $1 billion disasters have all happened in the past five years.”
As she looks to the future, Moran says the students walking the halls of O’Neill now will be the ones working to mitigate those disasters—and one of the barriers they’ll face is the dichotomy between community resilience and economic development.
“As a country, we don’t like to talk about risk,” she says. “I understand the importance of economics to a community, but there are places where residents and businesses should not be.”
The way to balance those competing concerns, she says, is to develop codes and requirements to make buildings as safe as possible if they must be placed in harm’s way. But she admits the biggest obstacle may be unraveling decades-old practices of prioritizing economics over emergency preparedness.
“A huge future challenge for the next generation of O’Neill alumni will be getting leaders to understand the cost-benefit of preparing for emergencies rather than only reacting to them,” she explains. “If that happens, we will be better prepared for these events and the impacts won’t be as significant.”
Moran’s team is already working toward that goal. After a flood in Decatur, Indiana, several years ago, her team bought destroyed homes so people could move out of the threat area, and no one would lose their home to flooding there again.
It was a year after that event that Moran received a package in the mail from an elderly woman she had helped.
“This woman had taken the time to paint a picture for me and frame it,” she says. “On the back, it said, ‘I can’t ever thank you enough because every time it rains now, I can just go to sleep. I don’t have to stay up and worry.’”
She says it’s in those moments that her motivation for her work is renewed—just as it was in Sullivan.
“My career goal was always to be able to show up and help when bad things are happening,” she says. “Being there reminded me that what I personally do every single day will help make those people’s lives better, even if it takes a little time.”