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Severe storms immerse emergency management student in disaster response

When emergency management and homeland security student Evan J. Kelbaugh returned to Pennsylvania College of Technology for the Fall 2021 semester, he did so with an enhanced sense of emergency response to parlay into his coursework. As part of his recent internship with the Bucks County Emergency Management Agency, the Langhorne resident was called into action when severe storms caused flash flooding in what the National Weather Service termed a “100-year flood event” for that county.

“This was my first real taste of an actual disaster that affected a large amount of people,” Kelbaugh said. “Looking at disasters in class can only influence someone so much. When I saw the people impacted just wandering and trying to collect their salvageable items, it hit me that this was real and not something I was just reading about.”

In a rare moment of inactivity, Evan J. Kelbaugh – whose recent internship involved a significant real-world response to disastrous flooding in Bucks County – stands outside Klump Academic Center.
In a rare moment of inactivity, Evan J. Kelbaugh – whose recent internship involved a significant real-world response to disastrous flooding in Bucks County – stands outside Klump Academic Center.

The Penn College student and a few members of Bucks County Emergency Services surveyed the damage to Lafayette Gardens Apartment Complex in Bensalem the morning after more than 60 residents were evacuated by search-and-rescue teams and numerous units were declared uninhabitable.

“The complex was torn to shreds with doors ripped off their hinges, windows were shattered and debris was covering the grass. There were also search-and-rescue spray-paint signals on the doors,” he explained.

Kelbaugh took notes and photographs in an effort to identify the types and estimated amounts of damages in the impacted area through a process called damage assessment. He also ended up offering a listening ear to the affected residents.

“You need to be compassionate, but you must understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. And you don’t lie to them – you don’t give them false hope,” he explained. “Working with the public is very difficult. Everyone responds differently, and you need to adjust how you speak accordingly.

“After we took notes and pictures of Lafayette Gardens, we continued to the rest of the locations we were assigned, but none of them were impacted remotely close to Lafayette. Lafayette really stuck to me because I tried to put myself in their shoes. These people were walking around after losing everything.”

When the Penn College student began his internship, he was “expecting a behind-the-scenes role … with typical internship stuff, but that quickly changed on day one.”

David E. Bjorkman, instructor of emergency management and homeland security, said, “Student internships have largely been administrative in nature, which is 95% of what we do in the field with meetings, planning, research, budgeting, grants, training and more meetings. Outside of the unique COVID-19 student internship experiences, Evan participated in what I believe is the program’s first significant real-world EM response to flooding in southeast PA.”

Kelbaugh’s father, Bill, was also activated to respond to the area’s flooding emergency in his role as manager of emergency preparedness for PECO Energy, an electricity and natural gas utility company serving Philadelphia and counties in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania.

Growing up, hearing about his father’s work and adventures partly inspired Kelbaugh to pursue his major, however he initially enrolled in civil engineering when he transferred to Penn College from Bucks County Community College. After two semesters in civil engineering, the lure of emergency management came calling, and he feels he’s in the right place.

“I’ve always been the type of person who enjoys driving down the road, seeing if anyone needs help,” he said. “It always seems like someone is in need of help.”

Kelbaugh, who is a senior in Penn College’s Bachelor of Science degree in emergency management and homeland security, is planning to focus on damage reports as part of his capstone project, an independent research assignment culminating students’ academic experiences.

“I like the unpredictableness of EMA work,” he said, adding that, with changes occurring in the global climate, there will be no shortage of needs in this public sector.

Kelbaugh has carried his love of music onto campus, playing trombone in the Penn College Pep Band.
Kelbaugh has carried his love of music onto campus, playing trombone in the Penn College Pep Band.

“Everything is getting warmer, and the reality is storms are getting more numerous and more intense,” Kelbaugh explained. “We learn that in the classroom, too. It’s a matter of fact.”

The day after he left his internship, Bucks County was hit by three tornadoes, adding to an already busy storm season. The county is continuing cleanup from damage caused by Hurricane Ida in late August and early September.

“Evan was an immediate part of the Bucks County EMA team, even earning a nickname – ‘chief’ – and a corner office!” said Audrey R. Kenney, director of Bucks County Emergency Services. “He was a great addition to the office and brought a friendly and positive enthusiasm to the environment. He worked with the training and exercise coordinator, Ian Eppig, daily and truly treated this experience as an opportunity to immerse himself into the emergency management experience.

“The management team is looking for a spot for Evan to fill upon his graduation from the program. He certainly earned his stripes during the crazy events of the summer of 2021!”

When he’s not engaging in his emergency management endeavors, Kelbaugh is a dedicated musician and plays trombone in the Penn College Pep Band. Prior to joining the band in Fall 2019, he performed with the jazz band, wind ensemble, marching band and orchestra in his middle and high schools.

Music is a family affair for the Kelbaughs. His brother also plays trombone, and his sister plays trumpet.

“The joke has been that our Dad always wanted his own personal Chicago band,” he said, adding that Chicago is one of his favorite bands.

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