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NEWS | Nov. 12, 2019

Shipyard Spotlight: Leah Kahn

By Michael Brayshaw, Norfolk Naval Shipyard Lead Public Affairs Specialist

You might say Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) Emergency Management Specialist Leah Kahn has always been prepared for a crisis. 

A self-professed “very cautious person,” her first brush with crisis management came at six years old seeing heavy smoke billowing from a neighbor’s garage that had caught fire.  Scampering out of the swimming pool, she quickly arranged for evacuation loading up the family car with her menagerie of stuffed animals. 

The elementary school girl who decorated her binders with photos of Sept. 11 first responders cemented her appreciation for emergency management at 16 years old taking a school trip to assist in New Orleans after it had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.  “I like helping people, so why not?” Kahn recalled reasoning.  “It changed my whole life.”

After gutting a flooded house to the studs to be bleached and rebuilt, Kahn also spent the week in a distribution center providing water, food, diapers and hand sanitizer to city residents.  “This was in the United States, months after the storm hit, and people were still reliant on these services.  It really opened my eyes to the level of need that could happen following these events,” she said.  “I never felt so tired, or felt that my time was so valuable, being able to help people during the most desperate time in their lives.” 

This California native earned her bachelor’s degree at Santa Barbara’s Westmont College before working there two years as a Risk Management Coordinator.  Years after having seen Katrina’s impact, Kahn learned about the response attending New Orleans’ Tulane University for a master’s degree in Disaster Resilience Leadership.  Before joining NNSY’s emergency planning team, Kahn worked from home for a Chicago-based consulting firm focused on emergency management for local, county, state, tribal, and federal government organizations, including coordinating federal deployments for Hurricane Harvey and other large-scale disasters.  “It was great experience,” said Kahn.  “I was working with clients literally from coast to coast, San Diego to Miami, focused on all hazards.  From hazard mitigation to continuity of operations plans, it spanned the gamut for whatever clients needed.” 

In coordinating employment through the military spouse preference program last year, Kahn had little idea where she might work, until she received a notice last summer.  “I got an e-mail that there was an opening here and I had 48 hours to say yes or no,” Kahn recalled.  NNSY’s Emergency Planning Director subsequently talked to Kahn about working in a high-stress environment and assisting in writing drill packages longer than an average novel.  Undaunted, Kahn accepted the challenge.  “I was really happy to find a community,” she said. 

She now serves as the Outreach Subject Matter Expert (SME) and coordinates with state and local agencies on NNSY emergency planning and response actions.  This past September, NNSY held a daylong workshop with its civil authority partners, featuring a waterfront tour.  “It went really well, I think our guests learned a lot,” reflected Kahn.  “We were able to smooth out some questions, nail down some processes, and as any good discussion does, it provided us further questions to follow up on.” 

Reflecting on the importance of strong partnerships with civil authorities, Kahn said, “Being an emergency manager is all about facilitating relationships, and having people trust you.  During an emergency, people look to you as a leader, and they’re going to react based on how you react.”   

Quick to laugh but even faster to smile, Kahn radiates a sunny spirit of kindness and courtesy in all her interactions.  At the same time, she demonstrates an unyielding attention to detail and perseverance in her job.  While her co-workers good-naturedly rib her for being a proud member of the Hogwarts Hufflepuff House, Kahn embodies the house’s characteristic qualities of kindness, loyalty, and being hardworking. 

“Leah is an amazing employee and person,” said NNSY Emergency Planning Director Alexis Miller.  “She has this incredible work ethic that is truly unrivaled. As we prepared for a major event including over 100 people from the shipyard, SUBLANT, the States of Virginia and North Carolina, and our local civil authorities, she did whatever it took to get the job done, and she made it look easy. She manages to find the positive in even the most challenging of situations and as a result everyone enjoys working with her.  Her attention to detail and eye for making our events both enjoyable and productive has already resulted in stronger relationships with our state and local partners.”

NNSY Radiological Controls Director Gary Sauers said, “I have been amazed at how quickly Leah has been able to operate totally independently while achieving outstanding results.  Last time I sat down with her to sample her thinking and staff work for a project, I could not find anything she had not already thought through and anticipated.  She exemplifies every aspect of the behavior and dedication we want in our people and NNSY family members.”

Bolstering her credentials, Kahn was recently honored as a Certified Emergency Manager from the International Association of Emergency Managers, culminating five years of self-study, drill participation, training facilitation, and other professional contributions.  Fewer than 2,000 emergency management professionals worldwide have attained this certification.  

With her husband being active duty Navy, Kahn knows her time at NNSY is limited, so she works with urgency in making every day constructive and ensuring every working relationship is strong, both inside and outside America’s Shipyard.  “I love who I work with!” she said.  “I’m in this field because I love helping, but I love working at the shipyard because of the people I get to work with!”