North Carolina Sea Grant

May 16, 2019 | Katie Mosher

Bridget Munger, N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency, 984-833-5361
Katie Mosher, North Carolina Sea Grant, 919-515-9069,

Jessica Whitehead

The N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency has announced Jessica Whitehead will become chief resilience officer on June 3. For 11 years, Whitehead has served as the coastal communities hazards adaptation specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant.

“Hurricanes Matthew and Florence underscored that as North Carolina builds back, we need to find ways to build back smarter and stronger,” she said. “We must improve North Carolina’s resilience, and doing so now will be cheaper in the long run as weather events become more severe and our climate changes.”

Whitehead was one of three experts named Wednesday by the N.C. Department of Public Safety to lead the state’s initiative to help storm-impacted communities rebuild to face future natural disasters and long-term climate change. The team will improve collaboration between governments, non-profits, the private sector and academia, with a goal of developing solutions that enhance the resilience of communities and the natural environment while creating safe and affordable housing solutions.

“The science tells us we can expect to see a continued increase in the frequency and severity of hurricanes and the flooding that follows. North Carolina has got to plan now to make our communities more resilient to future storms,” said N.C. Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks. “We can’t afford to wait for another Matthew or Florence to take action.”

The Office of Recovery and Resiliency administers funds received by the state through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery Program, in partnership with the N.C. Department of Commerce. Established by Governor Roy Cooper in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, the office provides disaster recovery coordination with services that include oversight of recovery funding, processing of program applications, construction and vendor management, and public outreach and education, among other responsibilities.

To date, public safety officials note that North Carolina has put more than $1.14 billion on the ground to help impacted communities recover from Hurricane Matthew. Recovery spending for Hurricane Florence has topped $1.58 billion to date.

In her Sea Grant role, Whitehead has helped coastal communities improve resilience by incorporating weather and climate information into local planning and decision-making. Recognized within the state and nationally as an expert in using science for adapting to coastal change, she is a member of the Independent Advisory Committee on Applied Climate, which recently published its recommendations on how to bring local and state governments and business perspectives to the process of identifying, documenting and improving the quality, relevance and utility of climate information for decision making.

Susan White, North Carolina Sea Grant’s executive director, notes that Whitehead has encouraged communities to ask varied groups to identify current and expected hazards, including the causes and consequences. “Those discussions have provided groundwork for plans now considered models in our coastal region and beyond,” White said. “We will miss having Jess directly on our team, but look forward to working with her in this new role.”

Recognized nationally as an expert in using science to adapt to coastal change, Whitehead has provided insights and information for numerous media outlets, including live interviews with The Weather Channel.

Whitehead is co-creator of the Vulnerability, Consequences and Adaptation Planning Scenarios, known as VCAPS. The process that has helped over 25 communities throughout the United States develop and implement adaptation options to increase resilience. For example, a case study that includes her work with the Town of Nags Head is part of a resilience toolkit provided online by NOAA.

Her early career was in a Carolinas regional position that included North Carolina Sea Grant, the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium and Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments program. That extension position was the first in the national Sea Grant network to focus on communities’ climate adaptation and resilience. More recently, she was a co-leader of the national network’s visioning efforts regarding weather and climate.

Whitehead currently co-chairs the Science and Technical Advisory Committee of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership and recently began a term on the American Meteorological Society’s Board of Outreach and Pre-College Education. She has participated in multidisciplinary outreach efforts, including as science advisor to the RISING program that includes an exhibit and community conversations about the changing coast.

She earned her doctorate in geography and master’s degree in meteorology from the Pennsylvania State University, and her bachelor’s degree physics with a concentration in meteorology from the College of Charleston.

Hooks’ announcement Wednesday also cited two new deputy chief resilience officers.

Marlena Byrne will have a primary focus on infrastructure projects. She is an environmental and land use lawyer with extensive experience as an advisor for large-scale public infrastructure, planning and capital improvement projects, as well as private development projects. As a deputy city attorney for the City and County of San Francisco for 13 years, she advised officials on urban planning, land use and historic preservation, as well as environmental, government, administrative and constitutional law.

Amanda Martin will have a primary focus on housing projects. She is a city planner who specializes in resilient community and economic development. For the past three years, she ran the Southeast Disaster Recovery Partnership, where she oversaw capacity building and planning projects in four states, conducted applied research and built a network of recovery and resilience professionals across the Southeast and Caribbean.


N.C. Department of Public Safety news release here.



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