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Disaster’s Wake 

Steve Hagerty’s company helps communities facing disasters — acts of God and acts ofterror that would otherwise overwhelm the regular operations of government.

By John Otis


There was a time when Steve Hagerty ’93 MPA told colleagues the emergency management market wasn’t big enough to support a career path. In 2000, as he prepared to leave his job with a large private consultant, Hagerty expected instead to explore an opportunity in real estate.

History intervened. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and then Hurricane Katrina convinced him he could play an important roll in disaster recovery. The need was great, the stakes high, and the opportunity for personal fulfillment almost unparalleled. This would be rewarding work.

Today Hagerty Consulting is one of the most respected providers of expertise and assistance in the emergency management arena — an arena that is growing. In an era of increasingly frequent declared disasters, governments attempting to meet the short-term, intensified needs of hard-hit communities rely on private experts who understand federal disaster procedures.

“There is a need for professionals who have a deep level of expertise with the federal disaster program, to help government agencies develop emergency operation plans and post-disaster recovery plans and to execute on those plans,” Hagerty says.

Like many in the consulting sector, Hagerty finds that assisting government satisfies his public-service passion, as much as if he himself served in government. “We’re an arm’s length away from individual people affected by disaster,” he says. “We can never forget why we’re here. Something really horrible happened to a community, to the people of a community, and what we do makes a difference to the lives of those in the community.”

Herman, Peg

Hagerty Consulting is at the forefront of the massive recovery effort launched in the wake of another devastating storm, Hurricane Sandy. It has been working with the federal government, local New Jersey municipalities, and other clients for the past year-plus. Much of the work involves shepherding public entities through the process of procuring federal grants.

To that end, Hagerty Consulting has collaborated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to oversee the Community Disaster Loan Program in New Jersey. It was created to provide budget relief to local governments experiencing, or projected to experience, significant losses in revenue — such as property tax or sales tax — as a result of Sandy. So far 60 loans, totaling $177 million, have been approved for New Jersey governments. Hagerty also has consultants in New York City collaborating with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, New York University, and some other agencies to prepare relief applications.

“Our philosophy is to make sure our local clients and our state clients get everything they are entitled to under the federal disaster program,” Hagerty says. “You navigate that by making sure your client is always taking the reasoned, credible approach; that your judgment is sound; that your decision-making is sound; and that you have positive relationships between the different parties.”

David Van Slyke, Bantle Chair in Business and Government Policy and Maxwell’s leading expert on government contracting, sees Hagerty as a good illustration of the relationship between government and specialized firms that are hired to meet very immediate challenges. “They have a particular type of expertise, on a scale that government often lacks,” Van Slyke explains.

“Something really horrible happened to the people of a community, and what we do makes a difference.”
— Steve Hagerty

It often makes more sense for governments to hire contractors to meet needs that can be difficult to meet internally, he says. “Government may not always want to build capacity for which recovering their investments may be difficult and where that need may only be temporary. Private firms have a lot more flexibility — in cost, expertise, hiring.”

“It’s not cost-effective,” says Hagerty, “for governments to employ thousands of employees and essentially have them on stand-by while they wait for a disaster to occur.”

The public and private sectors are “more blended than most people realize,” Van Slyke adds. In fact, Hagerty’s effectiveness derives from his long-standing relationship with FEMA, including extensive post-Katrina work. 

“What makes us effective is that FEMA has invested as much in me over the last 20 years as I have in the agency,” Hagerty says.

The government loan program Hagerty oversees in New Jersey today is actually modeled after a $1.4-billion program created after Hurricane Katrina, when FEMA approached Hagerty to help reduce the preparation time for applications. Hagerty managed to streamline an application preparation process that typically takes two months down to just one week. Two teams of six Hagerty consultants in Louisiana and Mississippi processed more than one billion dollars in loans for those states. That work provided a template for future relief projects, such as flooding in Boulder, Colorado, and Hurricane Sandy.

“I have a very sound understanding of their rules and regulations. When they need to streamline programs or want someone to approach an issue differently, I can do so while being cognizant of and compliant with their rules and regulations,” says Hagerty.

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Steve Hagerty (center) in New York City during a recent project there. Shown with him are some of the Max-well-educated members of his team at the time (from left): Joseph Simon ’13 MPA/IR, Jake Turetsky ’10 MPA, Sarah Byrne ’07 MPA, Arthur Craig ’10 MPA, and Sotiros Gountas ’08 MAIR. (Turetsky and Byrne have since joined the New York City Department of Transportation and FEMA, respectively.)

Steve Hagerty, raised on a farm in Attleboro, Massachusetts, has long been adept at meeting needs and has harbored an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. By the time he was nine years old, Hagerty already had several sources of income: delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, and selling farm produce from a roadside stand and door-to-door. 

“I was selling organic food long before I realized I could put a premium on it,” he quips.

His parents, who were teachers, instilled the importance of public service, so after earning his undergraduate degree in consumer studies from Syracuse’s College for Human Development in 1991, Hagerty enrolled at Maxwell for his MPA. At Maxwell he met his wife, Lisa Altenbernd, also ’93 MPA.

After Maxwell, Hagerty was hired by what was then Price Waterhouse. His first consulting job was aiding FEMA with Hurricane Andrew relief efforts in Florida in 1993. For that disaster, he was tasked with becoming the expert on debris removal and garbage disposal fees. At Price Waterhouse for the next eight years, he focused on disaster recovery — though not solely. He also worked on a dozen or so non-FEMA projects, such as the 1994 audit of the U.S. House of Representatives, a strategic plan for the implementation of a non-emergency call center system in Los Angeles, and a workload study for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“While I enjoyed those projects, I never walked away with the same sense of satisfaction I got working with FEMA,” Hagerty says. Though in the private sector, he began to sense that providing supplementary expertise and services to governments — especially in times of greatest need — served his urge to benefit the public good. 

In 2001, Hagerty decided to strike out on his own, though still unconvinced that disaster-recovery work would support him. Weeks later, the country was rocked by the September 11th terrorist attacks. Hagerty was approached by colleagues in government, who asked him to lend a hand with 9/11 relief. Ultimately, that tragedy and its aftermath shaped the future of his career. He saw first-hand the federal government’s increased commitment to emergency preparedness and recovery and how consultants were needed in the most challenging moments. Hagerty Consulting was incorporated the next year.

“I hadn’t planned to go into this field,” Hagerty says. “It sort of found me. My personal profile in that area increased, so the opportunity presented itself to me to pursue that type of work. Any good consultant is pretty flexible at adapting to different situations.” 

Today, with offices in Washington, D.C., and Evanston, Illinois, Hagerty Consulting serves a roster of more than 100 clients and has about 125 consultants working on projects. It specializes in providing services to federal, state, and local governments, as well as to colleges and universities, nonprofits, and the private sector.

“There’s a great sense of personal satisfaction in being part of a large group of people who help communities recover.”
— Steve Hagerty

“If you’re working in the area of emergency management or recovery after disasters, you’re there at a time when people really need the help of government and are appreciative to receive that help,” Hagerty says. “So there’s a great sense of personal satisfaction in being part of a large group of people who help communities recover.”

According to government-contracting expert David Van Slyke, this sense of mission is not unusual. “Some of the consultants I’ve met are every bit as public-service oriented as people working in government.” In working for consultancies, Van Slyke says, Maxwell alumni find opportunities for intense, focused contributions to public welfare: “Students sometimes ask me, ‘Can I help government more by not going into government?’” 

That sentiment would be shared by the many Maxwell graduates in Hagerty’s workforce. “We’ve had a lot of Maxwell grads work with Hagerty in the past or who are currently working with us on projects,” Hagerty says. (At the time of this writing, there were eight alumni on board.)

He says Maxwell grads possess strong core competencies required for work his company performs — but also that famous passion for the public sector.

“My goal has been to be of service,” says Janouska Jules ’05 MAIR/Econ, a project manager with Hagerty. “The work I have done these past years since I left Maxwell usually does not come with name recognition or accolades. My motivation — my continual work in public service — has been the desire to contribute to the overall relief from events that often devastate a community.”

Those sentiments are echoed by fellow Maxwell alumnus Arthur Craig ’10 MPA, a management consultant with Hagerty.

“The Maxwell School places an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving, and that is the basic job description for management consultants,” Craig says. “Our work is solutions-driven. Our clients depend on us to develop innovative approaches to disaster recovery that save time, public money, and staff effort. If it weren’t for the Maxwell experience I wouldn’t be able to approach the problems and provide the answers that our clients expect.”

Hagerty added that a lot of his Maxwell consultants are skilled at “leading from where they are” — deft at demonstrating competency and authority without stepping on toes.

This approach is the mantra he preaches to every member of his team — a team apt to grow. Current climatic trends hint that the role played by expert disaster-recovery consultants will be ever more vital.

“Unfortunately, climate change is having an impact,” Hagerty says. “It’s likely we’ll see bigger disasters and more destruction as a result.” The crucial role played in those moments by Hagerty Consulting will grow only more important if those predictions prove true.   

Preparation And Response

Before his company was even incorporated in 2002, Steve Hagerty and his team were in the disaster-relief trenches, lending aid to those directly impacted by the 2001 terrorist attacks. Here’s a closer look at some of Hagerty Consulting’s biggest accomplishments since.

9/11 Terrorist Attacks   From 2001 to 2004, Hagerty consultants oversaw the development of 1,500 grants, totaling $7.4 billion, used to help New York City recover. The company implemented an innovative system, the Incremental Cost Approach (ICA), which expedited funding used to reimburse the NYPD, FDNY, and other first responders for overtime costs. FEMA recognized the ICA as a best practice in its 2002 Summary PAPeer Review.

2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season   Four major hurricanes devastated the Atlantic coast in 2004. A two-year effort by Hagerty Consulting led to the housing of 15,000 displaced Florida families, who were sheltered in travel trailers and mobile homes until their homes could be rebuilt. Fifteen consultants assisted FEMA with efforts to ascertain who needed housing assistance and where. Hagerty’s systems allowed FEMA to monitor each family’s progress through the housing assistance programs.

Hurricane Katrina   From 2008 to 2012, Hagerty Consulting played a crucial role in managing post-Katrina reconstruction funds for New Orleans, totaling $1 billion. Again FEMA asked Hagerty to help house hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens. The company helped manage a direct housing assistance program that sheltered more than 100,000 families — the largest temporary direct disaster housing assistance program ever in the United States. It also assisted with a $280-million alternative housing program in Mississippi.

The New Madrid Seismic Zone   Hagerty Consulting also deals with the preparedness side of emergencies. It managed the largest catastrophic planning project in the country for the New Madrid Seismic Zone, a fault line that extends through five midwestern states and three southern states and could potentially threaten all of them should an earthquake ever occur. Hagerty’s work for FEMA on the project resulted in the delivery of four joint region/state operational earthquake plans.

This article appeared in the winter 2014 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2014 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.