Sezin Tokar: Providing critical technical expertise to help USAID respond to storm and drought-related disasters


( to Pat Adams/USAID )
November 18, 2013

A week before Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines, Sezin Tokar was tracking the storm’s path, and its wind speed and the potential rainfall, to help the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) plan its disaster response.

“She reads very complicated weather maps, really complicated, and is able to interpret it to us so we can turn it around and feed it to decision-makers,” said Peter Morris, director of preparedness, strategic planning and mitigation at USAID.

Once they have a better handle on where and how big a storm is expected to be, USAID can more quickly mobilize and dispatch the people needed to respond, he added.

Tokar synthesizes and packages meteorological information from numerous weather models and forecasts from the U.S. and foreign countries to make the data understandable and useful to the disaster management community.

The output from these models is “pretty scientific,” said Tokar a hydrology expert who previously worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “It would be hard for someone to pick them up and make a decision.”

Who is Sezin Tokar?

POSITION: Hydrometeorological Hazards Advisor, Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

RESIDENCE: Bethesda, Md.

AGE: 49

EDUCATION: Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, B.S. in civil engineering; Cleveland State University, M.S. in civil engineering; University of Maryland, College Park, Ph.D. in civil engineering

AWARDS: USAID Superior Group Award, Humanitarian Emergency Response Team, Lebanon, 2008; USAID Superior Group Award, Pakistan Earthquake Response Team, 2007; U.S. State Department Meritorious Honor Award, "Senator Paul Simon Water for Poor Act," 2006; USAID Superior Group Award, Asian Tsunami Response Team, 2005

HOBBIES: Traveling, knitting, cooking, gardening

USAID relies on her expertise as it responds to an average of 70 disasters a year in more than 50 countries.

Tokar’s job as a hydrometeorological hazards advisor at USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) includes not only helping with the immediate response to extreme events around the world such as floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and droughts, but providing ongoing assistance to strengthen other countries’ ability to forecast disasters and respond to them.

“There is such a great need to build the capacity of other nations,” said Tokar.

For example, she helps other nations with meteorological and hydrological training, and technical and technological assistance, to improve their preparedness and early warning capacity.

Working with NOAA, Tokar helped dozens of countries put in place a flash flood guidance system that gives local officials crucial time to implement emergency plans and move people out of harm’s way.

Flash floods “can occur in less than six hours and most countries don’t have the capacity to monitor and issue warnings,” Tokar said. USAID provides simple tools to help countries build the capacity over the long term.

“I enjoy tackling some of our toughest problems with scientific solutions,” she said.

Water shortages in Turkey, where Tokar grew up, triggered her career interest. After her school day ended, she frequently had to help her mother get water for the household from a communal faucet, even though they lived in Ankara, the capital city.

Water often was turned off due to infrastructure development projects that required water to be diverted. Tokar and her mother would go to the neighborhood mosque, which had continuous water, or community faucets. “I got interested in how water comes to the home so I didn’t have to wait on long lines.”

She pursued an engineering degree in Turkey, thinking she could help get pipelines to homes. But she later became interested in the water cycle and how water and rainfall got into rivers. She did graduate work in the United States, focusing on hydrology and water resources engineering, which she called a marriage between meteorology and hydrological science that looks at how water moves in cycles and how to predict that movement and then take action.

Early in her career, she worked at NOAA where she got interested in the international aspect of hydrological issues. “I enjoy working with other nations’ scientists to find solutions to common problems,” she said. “No matter the political issues, disasters unite different countries.”

For example, although Armenia and Turkey typically have a strained relationship, they are working together in the technical realm on flood management and early warnings. “You can’t see that in many other professions,” she said.

She finds the mission and challenges exciting. “How can you get a mandate more fulfilling than saving lives and alleviating suffering,” she said. “The best part of my job is you can see you’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org to nominate a federal employee for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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