Ethan Myers: Everyday People: Coastal hazards specialist looks to make science accessible

Nov. 28—Born and raised in Corsica, an island off the coast of France in the Mediterranean Sea, Felicia Olmeta-Schult laughs about the fact that growing up, the tide was hardly noticeable.

Now, as the coastal hazards specialist for Oregon Sea Grant and Oregon State University Extension Service, she studies the many hazards that threaten communities along the West Coast, where she describes the environment as much more "wild."

Replacing Patrick Corcoran, who retired in 2020 after 32 years with the program, Olmeta-Schult took on the role in June. In the position, she acts as a liaison between scientists and the public and seeks to educate communities on how to build resilience from hazards that are acute — like earthquakes and tsunamis — and chronic — like flooding and erosion.

Olmeta-Schult takes research and studies and determines how to "translate that and make it applicable on the ground," she said.

A desire to make science more accessible to the public is what ultimately drew her to the role.

Her responsibilities include increasing collaboration between decision-makers and researchers, educating people on the impacts of climate change and coastal hazards, assessing needs and vulnerability of communities and increasing awareness of data and other tools which could protect lives and infrastructure.

"Basically, I'm the person who has to make the connections and transfer information into those exchanges," Olmeta-Schult said. "Not only between (Oregon State) University and communities, but it also could be other partners, such as nonprofits and state agencies. Basically, all the interested parties you can have in Oregon who have an interest in coastal hazards."

Although she works remotely from Vancouver, Washington, Olmeta-Schult travels to the coast often to attend meetings, conferences and events. She plans to move out to the coast soon.

While helping the coast prepare for a potential Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami is a large part of her job, she doesn't want it to be the only focus for communities.

"We can't (focus) on the doom and gloom, because people can get paralyzed and discouraged," she said.

She also highlighted the many success stories for community preparedness, such as school districts moving schools out of the tsunami inundation zone.

Being educated and situationally aware of a potential Cascadia disaster will ultimately be important, she said. While residents on the coast have a growing understanding of how to prepare, she said, it is a tougher challenge to educate visitors.

"On one side, visitors need to be informed, but you don't want to scare them away," she said, noting that many rural communities along the coast rely on tourism.

Previously serving as a resilience fellow for Oregon Sea Grant, Olmeta-Schult developed a tool that helps educate about hazards and climate change. Titled the Oregon Coastal Hazards Ready Library and Mapper, it displays a map of case studies for all types of hazards and how communities are dealing with them.

Olmeta-Schult hosted the Rising Sea Voices podcast, which interviewed scientists and people familiar with coastal hazards. She plans to bring it back for another season.

She also created a newsletter which covers events, announcements, jobs, grant opportunities and more related to coastal hazards.

Olmeta-Schult's journey into oceanography has taken her all across the world. After leaving France, she received a bachelor's degree from Hawaii Pacific University, a master's degree from the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. from Washington State University.

Throughout her time in the Pacific Northwest, Olmeta-Schult has enjoyed meeting and connecting with people, helping them deal with the hazards that are happening now and the ones that are still to come.

"My goal is to find how we can be better prepared and how we can adapt and recover," she said. "And then how we can not only stay (on the coast), but thrive there."