Disaster Recovery, People Spotlight, Resilience, United States

Our People Spotlight series gives you an inside look at our technical experts around the world. This week, we are highlighting a disaster recovery specialist from AECOM’s Christiansted office in the U.S. Virgin Islands and providing an insight into their inspiration and work.

Karisma has specialized experience in community outreach, wraparound services for unaccompanied minors and community health initiatives. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2016, she played a key role as disaster recovery specialist, helping to renew and restore neighborhoods across the islands. This effort involved helping a quarter of the territory’s population to return to safe and stable housing, and over a thousand households to access code-compliant roof repairs. Currently, Karisma is part of AECOM’s program management and grant administration team helping the City of Detroit manage $826 million in appropriated American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) funds for over 100 programs and projects directed at public safety and community health.

Tell us about what inspired you to join the industry

My parents would say I was inspired to join the industry “at the tender age of seven,” by the Architectural Digest magazine. I was drawn to the structure and design of buildings, and how people worked within spaces. From an early age I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the design and planning field, and I was interested in creating social change through my job. However, my path into our industry was a winding one.

I studied conservation, marine science and biology during my undergraduate years and then worked for a local nonprofit organization (St. Croix Environmental) as the conservation director, defining short- and long-term conservation program goals and objectives for the St. Croix, USVI, Marine Protected Area. Next, I pursued a doctorate in traditional Chinese medicine in Shenyang, in northeast China. After completing my doctoral degree, I moved back home to St. Croix to help reinvigorate the community’s focus on preventative health care and was engaged in that work in 2016 when hurricanes Irma and Maria struck as category 5 storms.

I was hired by AECOM to provide community outreach and case management under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Step Emergency Home Repair of the Virgin Islands (EHRVI) program as part of the restoration work after the storms to bring the voice of the community back to the design and program management team. This opportunity to work alongside AECOM’s architects and engineers, who were all focused on designing buildings and infrastructure in a way that would better our community, renewed my childhood love for structures and design.

What is your favorite AECOM project that you’ve worked on and why?

The FEMA Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) EHRVI program provided the opportunity to work in my own community, connecting with people and helping them find a path after these catastrophic disasters. Working alongside our team, I led the community outreach component for St. Thomas and St. Croix. FEMA and the AECOM team were initially tasked with providing repair assistance for 5,500 homes in the territory. This included completing damage assessments and making basic repairs, so individuals were able to shelter at home. As part of the first team on the ground, we conducted fast-track assessments and administered the FEMA application process to secure the funds needed to carry out the restoration program.

The outreach component involved collecting documentation from more than 5,000 applicants, managing individual cases and maintaining communications with the community throughout the life of the program. Nearing final closeout this year, the EHRVI/STEP program has provided temporary repairs to 8,000 homes and permanent roofing repairs to 1,648 homes. Working as part of this team to help my own community recover from natural disasters was inspirational and it has shaped my career.

Tell us a story of how your work positively impacted the community.

On the Pomona Emergency Intake Site (EIS) project in California, my team and I made immediate, positive impacts to the lives of people in need. Through the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Unaccompanied Children program, we provided facility design and wraparound services, including direct care and supervision, intake processing, clothing, hygiene kits, interior security, case management and medical services.

As part of the logistics and procurement team on the ground in Pomona, I was able to help provide children with clean and safe shelter along with food and clothing after they’d completed their journey to the U.S. Something as simple as procurement of shoes and socks was extremely rewarding.

Share a piece of career advice

Remain open to possibilities. Stay versatile and keep learning.

Karisma Elien

Originally published Nov 9, 2022

Author: Karisma Elien

Karisma is a disaster recovery specialist from AECOM’s Christiansted office in the U.S. Virgin Islands.