Elyssa Tappero

Tsunami Program Coordinator
Washington Emergency Management Division

Q: What brought you to the Washington Military Department?
A: I was looking for a change in careers and hoped to get my foot in the door somewhere in the field of emergency management. WA EMD had an opening for a Tsunami Program Coordinator at the time, a position which caught my attention because I’ve always been interested in natural hazards. I have a geoscience background and experience managing federal grants, both requirements for the position, so I applied on a whim. I really didn’t think I’d get it, but here I am!

Q: What's the most inspiring part of your job?
A: The most inspiring part of my job is working with the local jurisdictions to mitigate and prepare for their tsunami hazard. A lot of our coastal counties and tribes lack big, well-funded emergency management departments but they make up for this with sheer passion and dedication. Their continued efforts to protect their stakeholders from a hazard with such potentially catastrophic consequences inspires me to do everything in my power to support and bolster that work at the state level. It can be a long, uphill battle, but knowing you have so many other determined people at your side makes the little victories all the sweeter.

Q: What motivates you to work hard?
A: My team! The WA EMD tsunami program is part of the Hazards and Outreach Program, which also includes the earthquake, volcano, and preparedness programs. We’re a small but extremely dedicated team of individuals who bring all our energy and passion to every project we tackle. My teammates not only motivate me by being an amazing support network for generating ideas and rekindling energy, they also do so by setting such high standards in the content they create. We’re always pushing each other to refine messaging, polish materials, and take on harder or more complex tasks. I learn so much from my team every day and I know I’ve grown as an employee and as a person for knowing them.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work and how do you tackle it?
A:One of the biggest challenges I face in my position is messaging fatigue and apathy. After two years of a global pandemic, the public is saturated with hazard messaging from government agencies and many people are tired of what to them feels like “being told what to do”. This makes educating about low-probability/high-consequence hazards like tsunamis very delicate and requires a nuanced approach. I try to approach each interaction/audience with empathy and an open mind so I can understand where they’re coming from; if I can put myself in their shoes, hopefully I can address their concerns in a way that creates dialogue instead of argument. I also try to be as genuine as possible so people can see I’m just a regular person who cares about their community as much as they do, not a faceless government automaton there to collect a paycheck. I think that personal touch does wonders for breaking down barriers.

Q: Do you ever think about the impact your work has on Washington residents? How does that make you feel?
A: Every day! Knowing my work could contribute to potentially saving someone’s life someday, or at least to a coastal community becoming better prepared to withstand a future tsunami, is why I work at WA EMD. When I reflect on past disasters, like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2011 Japanese tsunami, I feel a deep sense of responsibility both to those who died in those events and to those who could become casualties here in Washington if something similar occurred. We can’t prevent natural hazards from happening, of course, but we can – and must – learn from them to reduce future loss of life. Being able to serve my community in this way is both an honor and greatly humbling.

Q: Flashback to when you were 10 years old. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: Probably a storm chaser! I was obsessed with the movie Twister as a kid and thought chasing tornadoes would be SO COOL. Of course, at 10 I didn’t realize how much driving that required. …or math. Turns out geology requires a lot less math than meteorology.

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Olalla, Washington – a tiny one-road community of mostly trees and cows at the very bottom of Kitsap County, made (somewhat and mostly locally) famous by the true crime novel Starvation Heights. If you don’t know the story of what went on there in the early 1900s, you should definitely check the book out!

Q: What's your biggest pet peeve?
A: I have a lot of those, but somewhere in the top five is definitely when people illegally dump their trash on the side of the road and then leave a “free” sign on it like that somehow makes it okay. There’s a corner near my house that has become the local “free junk” dumping ground and whenever I see some new piece of broken Ikea furniture abandoned there to mold in the rain I am filled with pure wrath.

Q: Speaking of pets – do you have any? Tell me about ‘em –

A: My wife and I have two cats and a dog. Our dog d’Anconia is the biggest scaredy-cat in the world; I’ve seen him run out of the room because the sound of his own fart scared him! Our male cat Lorne is his best friend. Lorne is everyone’s best friend, actually. He’s seven years old and no vet has ever been able to check his respiration because he just won’t. stop. purring! Lorne’s sister Willow rules our entire house and may have been human royalty in another life. She certainly acts like it. Of our three pets, she’s possibly the only one who has any brain cells. She uses them to keep track of the locations of all headphone cords in the house so she can chew through them if you forget to hide them. She already got to all of the blind cords and most of our shoelaces.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or mantra you live by?
A: “Keep your sandwich dry” - This odd mantra comes courtesy of my father and his time as a Marine Corps radio operator during the Vietnam War. One rainy night he fixed himself a sandwich in preparation for a grueling night-shift in the radio control center. There was one problem, however: the mess hall and the radio building were several hundred feet apart, separated by an open stretch of darkness, mud, and driving rain. He watched the rain for a moment, then sighed, carefully stored his sandwich in his jacket, and dashed out into the storm. “Running through the rain, huddled over my sandwich, I realized something,” my father explained to me. “I realized that all that mattered in that moment was keeping my sandwich dry. The rain didn’t matter; the night didn’t matter; the war didn’t matter. If I could just keep my sandwich dry, everything else would work itself out. All I had to do was protect my sandwich.”

“Keep your sandwich dry” became my father’s personal motto. It is a deceptively simple adage. Instead of panicking over the hundred things that cause you stress but you can’t control, you simply deal with one matter at a time that you can control and always preserve your center of calm. If he had been so inclined, he would have made an amazing emergency manager – and while I am nowhere near the levelheaded stoic he was, I try to live by this mantra every day.

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