(Photo: Erik Swanson)

Through her work monitoring seismic and volcanic activity, Gari Mayberry usually knows before most everyone else when a volcano, landslide, tsunami or earthquake is going to rattle or potentially devastate a community somewhere around the world.

She draws on that know-how to develop the response strategy of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which is responsible for leading and coordinating the U.S. government’s response to disasters overseas.

Although she is employed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), she is stationed at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) where she serves as liaison between the two agencies, as she leads OFDA’s efforts to prepare for and respond to geological hazards that threaten millions of people worldwide.

“I really like connecting scientists’ work to real-life applications that can save lives,” said Mayberry, OFDA’s geological hazard advisor.

As a trained volcanologist, she also manages the world’s only volcano response team, a group of USGS scientists at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., that can deploy quickly when there are signs of volcanic activity internationally. The team travels to assess volcanic hazards, install monitoring equipment, collect and analyze data and train other scientists to forecast future eruptions.

Mayberry is “an essential element in what we do,” said John Pallister, chief, Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. “She’s helped us build and grow a cooperative interagency program very effectively in the last decade.”

Most of the volcano risk is in the Pacific Rim, where there is major tectonic plate movement. In 2010, for example, the Mount Merapi volcano in Indonesia began displaying activity, and scientists at the Cascades observatory were busy doing remote sensing work, using satellites to look at the volcano’s surface.

They sent convincing evidence of ramped-up volcanic activity to Indonesian scientists, who persuaded their government to respond. The Indonesian government then activated its early warning system and evacuated tens of thousands of people in advance of the largest eruption in more than 100 years, Mayberry said.

Sometimes Mayberry goes to the scene as well. When she deployed her team to Tanzania several years ago to evaluate the threats posed by the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, she worked closely with the Tanzanian government—even briefing the country’s president. She worked with the

disaster assistance team and Tanzanian counterparts to create a detailed map of the threats the volcano posed, which led to plans of action for addressing the risks.

Mayberry finds this “science diplomacy” rewarding and important, as friendships build between U.S. scientists and those they work with in other countries.

In addition to coordinating scientists during crises, Mayberry’s work involves reviewing projects that scientists propose for evaluating volcano and earthquake risks and the ability to respond to them, and whether to support those projects with OFDA funding.

One successful project was PAGER—Prompt Assessment of Global Earthquakes for Response—a system that estimates the fatalities and economic loss from significant earthquakes worldwide. Information on the depth and location of an earthquake, the local geology and more is put together in a report sent to responders and available to the public.

There are challenges to fulfilling USGS’s mission to reduce disasters risks. When areas have not experienced an earthquake or volcanic eruption in many years, it’s hard to raise the alarm about the potential dangers. “Our hazards don’t happen every day,” Mayberry said. “People often feel other issues are more pressing.”

Mayberry works with nongovernmental groups and other organizations to educate people on the risks.

She also has been successful at getting USGS employees who usually work on domestic projects to form an earthquake disaster assistance team that is committed to being available to help in an international crisis, Pallister said.

“That’s a big thing,” he said. “She’s an essential element in what we do. She’s helped us build and grow a cooperative interagency program very effectively in the last decade.”

And with her background in volcanology and remote sensing, she often is asked by OFDA to make short-term calls on activities they should worry about, Pallister said.

“It can range from volcanic eruptions in a far corner of the world to earthquakes that will or will not create a tsunami,” he said. “She is the interface to 10,000 people in USGS to get back to OFDA with long- and short-term analyses. Is this a pending crisis, and one we should be preparing for in terms of our team responding?”

And, importantly, she has helped people in both agencies to recognize that international work is important, Pallister added.

“Without Gari, there might still be people fighting an uphill battle to get resources to do what we need to do internationally.

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 the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.