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Kelli McCarthy is prepared for anything

Kelli McCarthy is a clinical assistant professor in the College of Public Health’s Institute for Disaster Management. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Institute for Disaster Management clinical assistant professor helps others handle any situation

Kelli McCarthy knows how to handle the worst situations.

As a clinical assistant professor in the College of Public Health’s Institute for Disaster Management (IDM), she helps others learn how to handle them, too.

“I want my students to think about, ‘OK, here you are—now what if this happens,’ and be more aware of their surroundings,” she said. “No matter where they are, a disaster can happen, so I want them to at least be thinking about it and be a little more prepared.”

McCarthy’s interest in disasters came at a young age.

“I always wanted to be Jim Cantore’s sidekick,” she said. “I wanted to be the girl on the beach with a microphone being pelted with wind and rain, reporting about weather. I’ve always loved severe weather, and I’ve always loved studying about disasters.”

McCarthy earned her bachelor’s degree in geography and a certificate in geographical information science (GIS) from UGA. She obtained her master’s degree in GIS from the University of Maryland. While working at a private consulting firm in northern Virginia, she was granted opportunities to conduct fieldwork on disaster-related GIS projects, further solidifying her desire to work in disaster management.

In fact, McCarthy got married the day after Hurricane Matthew hit southeast Georgia. Most wedding days are filled with nerves and anxiousness. McCarthy’s was filled with critical decision making and resilience. The day started with no power at the church, requiring a quick change of venue and getting her hair and makeup done at a salon where floodwater was being pumped out.

“My bridesmaids said, ‘Well, if anyone is going to get married in the middle of a hurricane, it should be you,’” she said with a laugh.

Being able to work in disaster management at her alma mater led McCarthy to IDM. As a member of the faculty, McCarthy’s work with IDM allows her to combine her love for disaster research and practice while teaching the next generation of disaster experts.

McCarthy teaches two of the institute’s graduate level classes for the Master of Public Health degree concentrating in disaster management and a First-Year Odyssey seminar on surviving disasters. All of her classes include hands-on activities and real-world experiences. McCarthy is also the faculty advisor for Disaster Dogs, where she enjoys working and collaborating with graduate and undergraduate students who share her passion for disaster management.

Combined with teaching, McCarthy also works on several research and outreach projects with other members of IDM faculty and staff to develop community and nation-wide disaster education and training.

In 2019, McCarthy was the exercise director for HHS Region IV Operation Wesley Exercise Program. This program focused on HHS Region IV facilities and associated response partners’ ability to respond to patients presenting with Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and suspect travel history. When the exercise was conducted, it was the largest multi-state EVD exercise ever completed in the United States.

McCarthy’s work on Operation Wesley and other projects has allowed her to share exercise findings at various regional, national and international conferences. Even while at these conferences, her love of severe weather is strong.

“We were attending a conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, and a line of severe weather was coming towards the city. My boss and colleagues were packing up getting ready to head out before the severe weather hit. I wanted to stay and watch the storm develop from the top-floor lounge. While not the safest thing to do, I wanted the best view of the storm. Needless to say, I was overruled, and we left before the storm arrived,” she said.

Emergency preparedness exercises are one of McCarthy’s favorite parts of her job. McCarthy is a candidate for the Master Exercise Practitioner program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute. The two-year program allows participants to refine and practice skills critical to performing the phases of the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program cycle.

“You could run the same exercise five different times and have five different outcomes. You have to really dive in and tailor it to the participants and the organizations involved,” she said. “To me, it’s rewarding when you can identify opportunities for improvement, but also develop solutions to address those issues moving forward. You’ve done something to help organizations and people better prepare for an inevitable event.”

Outside of work, McCarthy enjoys spending time with her family. In particular, she enjoys all things sports, whether it is recreational sports with her children or attending UGA sporting events. They also travel to Disney World as much as possible.

Whether she’s on campus for a game or for work, she wants to ensure people are ready when the unthinkable happens.

“We want to ensure everyone has the knowledge and confidence to prepare themselves and their communities for a disaster,” McCarthy said. “We want to continue to grow the IDM footprint across our campus, state, nation and globe. Disasters impact everyone, no one is immune. We want people to know IDM is here to help, and we’re just as excited to learn from others as we are to share what we know.”