New National Disaster Resilience Program Leader Brings Experience

By JILL SCHRAMM, Minot Daily News | August 15, 2017

John Zakian is no stranger to the aftermath of natural disasters. Tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires – he’s seen it all.

The manager of Minot’s National Disaster Resilience Program brings a familiarity with disaster recovery to a North Dakota community seeking to rebound from an epic flood in 2011, Minot Daily News reported.

“There’s a natural and understandable tendency on the part of the community as a whole to want to quickly get back to normal and even better than normal,” Zakian said. “Clearly, Minot has that fighting spirit. It can be very frustrating when you begin to realize the disaster is so intense, it can’t be done overnight. But I have also learned there has to be an understanding and patience for anyone like me who is trying to help.”

While Zakian’s job won’t be done overnight, it must be done in the next five and a half years to meet the time requirement for spending the $74.3 million Minot was awarded in the resilience competition. Although the visible progress has come slowly so far, there’s much work being done behind the scenes.

In the next few months, the community will be seeing action on a family shelter and affordable housing, Zakian said. An environmental review on the Park South Apartments is to be completed Aug. 15, enabling that renovation to become the first affordable housing project to occur through the resilience program.

Meetings have been held with financial institutions and Realtors to talk about affordable housing and resilient neighborhoods, which could be existing neighborhoods. Using existing buildings and neighborhoods requires adapting the original program to meet the changing needs of the community, Zakian said.

“We want to be careful. We don’t want, with this funding, to in any way undermine the private sector,” he said. “We want to stay out of the way of what’s good in the city. We want not to interfere with the solid private sector activities going on. We want to complement and to supplement it.”

Another resilience program moving forward is a downtown gathering space.

“It’s not only going to be a new park area. It also could be, if done correctly, a stimulant for new investment. If you want to further stimulate the private sector, show them that you want to invest in your key areas. One of those is always the downtown,” Zakian said.

As time goes on, Zakian expects to be out in the front of the public often. He sees a role for himself in articulating the logic of the program to the community and says there will be public meetings where the community can provide feedback.

The resilience program focuses on three areas: reducing flood risks and improving water management, $21 million; building affordable, resilient neighborhoods, $43 million; and fostering economic resilience and diversification, $5 million. Remaining funds are allocated to planning and administrative costs.

“The challenge is there are a lot of moving pieces and there are a lot of projects and activities,” Zakian said. “I really look at my role as being the navigator – to take what was put in the plan and make it coordinated and coherent and meet the expectations of the community, the mayor and the city council, and when we are all said and done, in five and a half years or maybe sooner, to have made significant strides in not only rebuilding Minot from the flood but actually making it more resilient and more vibrant and a sustainable community.”

Zakian joined the City of Minot June 1.

He has an extensive background in economic and housing development, finance, municipal services, and disaster recovery consulting. Before coming to Minot, he had been a contract consultant working for the New York City Office of Management and Budget, providing guidance in administering a $4.2 billion Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery plan, developed following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Also among his disaster response activities, he spent a year with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate federal agencies in Birmingham, Alabama, following tornadoes in 2011.

Zakian earned a degree in government from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1972. He completed his master’s degree in public administration at New York’s Pace University in 1985. Zakian is a certified economic developer through the International Economic Development Council. He also is certified in various FEMA programs.

“I am constantly striving to learn. The certification process gives you an opportunity to continue to learn,” he said.

In addition, he is a grant reader and peer reviewer for federal agencies. In that role, he sees firsthand where government agencies are choosing to put their funds.

“The value has been phenomenal,” he said. “It allows me to see where the trends are in terms of best practices in all kinds of development.”

It was while working with the CDBG-DR program in New York City that Zakian became aware of Minot. He noticed Minot’s efforts through the program were rising to the top of the competition.

“It caught my attention,” he said.

His interest in joining Minot’s effort, though, came about out of a desire to get involved with disaster recovery in a different way. Despite having worked as a consultant for a number of years, he admits there are times when he doesn’t just want to give advice but itches to be involved in making things happen.

He now takes advice from Minot’s consultant, CDM Smith.

“But at the end of the day, I get to make a lot of decisions and move projects forward, and that’s what I want to do,” he said.

The New York City native said he’s adapted to wherever he’s lived and likes Minot already.

Married for 28 years, he and his wife are both career oriented so are used to spending time apart due to their work. Their home is in Massachusetts, where his wife works as director of a human services agency.

Zakian said he gets back to Massachusetts about once a month, but he’s also fully integrating himself into the Minot community. He hopes to get more involved in community affairs as time goes on. Getting up to speed on the resilience program is his first goal, though.

“This is a considerable investment. My goal is to make it the wisest, smartest and most beneficial,” Zakian said. “One of my challenges is to take each of the pieces to make sure that it’s connected, that everything has logic and is part of a bigger vision that just moves Minot forward and allows it to continue to grow.”

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