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Sarah Lang's IVLP experience in the U.S.
November 25, 2019

Photo credit: Sarah Lang.
Photo credit: Sarah Lang.


In September 2019, Sarah Lang took part in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in the U.S. on Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. We are delighted that she has offered to share her experience on the trip she took in September.



My name is Sarah Lang and I had the honour of being selected for an International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) on Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management in September 2019.

Prior to embarking on the programme, I had never heard of the IVLP, and on doing some research was humbled by the calibre of past participants (including Jacinda Ardern, Helen Clarke, David Lange from New Zealand and a raft of other global leaders) and the generosity of the USA to provide such an expert, content rich, and meaningful cultural programme to 5000 leaders from around the world, on an annual basis since 1940!

Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management IVLP Programme

I commenced my 3-week programme in Washington DC, where I met the six other programme participants who were leaders in disaster management from Fiji, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Pakistan.

During the first week, we received a detailed grounding in American history, politics and disaster management systems in the USA, and were fortunate to visit various state memorials, disaster simulation centres and enjoy a home hosting dinner with an American family.

The second week took us to Houston, where we learnt about Hurricane Harvey, its devastating impact on the city and how the citizens mobilised to recover from such a significant disaster.  

Ironically, while we were in Houston learning about disaster management and mitigation, Tropical Storm Imelda hit, resulting in extreme flash flooding, and the group being stranded in Houston for two days while the floodwaters subsided, and the backlog of cancelled flights was cleared. We all felt that the IVLP programme co-ordinators delivering a real-life disaster for the programme was going beyond the call of duty!

After we finally escaped the floods in Houston we headed to Los Angeles where the focus turned to surviving mass-shooting attacks. Initially, I had thought this session would be irrelevant to New Zealand, however after the Christchurch Mosque attacks, it became very clear that nobody is immune to such tragic acts of terrorism. As part of our programme, we attended a local community workshop on how to survive an attack – learning that run, hide and fight are the best strategies; hopefully something that none of us ever have to put into action.

As an antidote to the serious nature of mass shooting attacks, we were treated with some downtime at the tourist meccas of Los Angeles including Hollywood, Universal Studios, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and a very special home hosting meal with a local family. Staying in the historic town of Old Pasadena really brought home the Spanish history of the Californian region – something I had been unfamiliar with before the IVLP experience.

Our last stop was to Olympia and Seattle in Washington State. Here we learnt about what the communities are doing to mitigate against tsunamis and earthquakes, as like NZ, this state sits on the Pacific Rim of fire, and is overdue for a significant earthquake.

After completing the 3 week IVLP programme, my family flew up from New Zealand to meet me in San Francisco and we spent 10 days road-tripping to Yosemite, Death Valley, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon – achieving many bucket list ticks on the way!

Lessons Learnt

Although the USA disaster management system was considerably different from NZ and the other centralist countries represented on the IVLP, there were many useful lessons for the participants. Some of the most significant takeaways for me were; 

  • the important role the private and philanthropic/faith-based sectors plays in disaster relief and preparedness in the USA
  • the growing importance of technology, artificial intelligence, data and social media to disaster relief and mitigation
  • the increased frequency and size of disasters due to climate change; changing infrastructure, changing workforces and changing landscape of volunteers 
  • to build a culture of preparedness, mitigation and continuity, there needs to be a whole of community response to create a secure and resilience nation.
  • the importance of coalitions, frameworks and relationships in delivering disaster relief
  • the importance of keeping hazards in the public consciousness to reduce the risk of disaster amnesia/apathy 

One of the opportunities provided through the IVLP is the ability to apply for grant funding to bring American speakers to New Zealand to share their expertise. I was very interested to learn about the Rockefeller Foundation and the work they are doing on infrastructure resilience and climate change – something I think could be of great relevance to New Zealand. I will certainly look into the possibility of inviting speaker from the Rockfeller Foundation to address the NZ infrastructure conference, Building Nations and share their experience with other local thought leaders in New Zealand.

How did my IVLP experience alter my perceptions of the United States and Americans?

Most IVLP programmes commence in Washington DC by providing a useful historical and political context to American society. I found this background information particularly illuminating, as it helped explain the importance of the state system to life in America – and the considerable differences in cultures and systems across the country. 

Was the trip as you imagined it would be?

Overall, the IVLP experience far exceeded my expectations. The rich content programme, consisting of high level federal, state and local speakers across multiple states, the access to a multitude of public and private agencies and facilities combined with an array of cultural sightseeing opportunities, tourist attractions and home hosting evenings provided an incredibly holistic learning experience. In addition, travelling with other global experts for 3 weeks 24/7 provided a useful synthesis opportunity – not to mention friends for life! 

I feel very privileged to have been selected for this opportunity of a lifetime and look forward to putting my learnings to good use in New Zealand and internationally.


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