Eva Lipiec in Washington, D.C.

By Dylan McDowell

When Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in 2012, Eva Lipiec’s childhood home was among the rubble. Lipiec, who was working as a geologist in Maryland, filled her car with supplies and rushed home to Rockaway Beach, N.Y. She began a rebuilding process that would put her patience to the test as her family faced bureaucratic hurdles.

“Not seeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency for weeks, and having buildings on fire in the middle of a flood, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It was a total breakdown of the system,” she said, adding that part of the problem was that development policies hadn’t taken the local geology into account. “There is too much pressure to develop in the short term and not enough interest or money to look at the long term.”

Her experience motivated her to seek a career in which she could help coastal communities and policymakers prepare for future disasters in the face of a changing climate. Working toward that goal, Lipiec is now a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow serving the Democratic representatives on the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources in Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by Sea Grant, the prestigious one-year fellowship places recent graduate students in executive and legislative offices in and around the nation’s capital to work on issues affecting oceans and the Great Lakes. More than 1,100 fellows have participated in the program since its inception in 1979. Lipiec is one of four Knauss fellows in 2016 who were graduate students at Oregon State University.

Lipiec, who started the fellowship in January, briefs the representatives on topics that have included fisheries treaties, coastal hazards and protections for salmon. She provides committee members with background information and attends hearings to answer policymakers’ questions and ensure they have the most-pertinent information available.

Using data from agencies such as FEMA and the Department of Transportation, Lipiec is also compiling a report that aims to estimate how much money the federal government has saved taxpayers by not funding development in areas prone to frequent flooding and heavy storms. Congress prohibits federal investment in such locations.

“The additive power of having a Sea Grant fellow on the House committee staff, especially on the minority side, is huge,” said Matt Strickler, a senior policy adviser for the committee and Lipiec’s adviser for the Knauss fellowship. “Eva’s understanding of coastal management, databases and GIS has been really helpful.”

Lipiec draws on knowledge she gained in OSU’s Marine Resource Management master’s program, from which she graduated in 2015. At OSU, she learned how to communicate scientific findings to people at risk from coastal hazards such as storms and flooding.

“Something that I learned at OSU is to put things in terms or analogies that people understand,” Lipiec said. “Saying something may happen in 2050 has no basis in people’s lives. You have to put it in the perspective of what they value. For a businessman, you might talk about property taxes or revenue lost. For homeowners, it may be memories associated with their house.”

For her master’s degree, Lipiec helped on a project that forecasted how flooding and erosion might affect coastal Tillamook County when hypothetical policies involving shoreline protection, construction requirements and development restrictions were taken into account. Using OSU-developed modeling software, she compared how effective those policies were at improving coastal resilience. She also identified legal barriers to enacting these policies.

After she completes her Knauss fellowship, Lipiec hopes to find a position helping communities or businesses develop plans for responding to various coastal hazards.

“Climate change is happening and it is going to get worse before it gets better,” she said. “I want a job in which I say, ‘Hey, this is happening, but we can work together to get through it.’”