Though originally from Philadelphia’s Main Line, John Miller’s road to Penn, and to working in public service, began in his adopted home of New Jersey. John graduated with his bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from Villanova University in 1993 and entered the private sector straightaway, working for firms that focused on water resource management from storms and floods. Living in Lambertville, NJ, an area susceptible to heavy flooding, John also gained much personal, firsthand experience dealing with water in the low-lying areas along the Delaware River. After New Jersey in 2004 announced new mandatory stormwater management requirements for all its municipalities, John wrote his local officials to offer his support. This simple gesture of volunteerism led to John joining the City of Lambertville Planning Board, a move that would guide him increasingly toward flood mitigation work in the public sector and, after over twenty years in the workforce, back into the classroom for Penn’s Masters of Environmental Studies program.
Once John joined Lambertville’s planning board, where is now vice chair, his involvement in flood mitigation and resiliency became progressively deeper. He joined the New Jersey Section of the American Water Resources Association and quickly assumed a series of leadership positions there, including a term as President in 2007. He also was invited to join the New Jersey Governor’s Delaware River Flood Mitigation Task Force. And, after becoming involved with the national Association of State Floodplain Managers, John took the initiative to establish a New Jersey state chapter for that organization, assuming additional leadership roles there over the past decade.
His commitment to public service took another leap forward after 2012, when Hurricane Sandy struck, and made flood resiliency and long-term flood mitigation and planning all the more pressing. It made John want to immerse himself all the more fully on the policy side of flood-related work. As fate should have it, the firm he was working for was going through a transition of its own, leaving John with a choice: pursue ownership in the company or go in a new direction. John chose the latter, and began looking into master’s programs that would help him reorient his career. John had met Wharton’s Howard Kunreuther, Co-Director of the Wharton Risk Center, at a 2008 flood conference in Nevada, and reached out to him for advice. At Professor Kunreuther’s suggestion, John checked out Penn’s master’s program in Environmental Studies (MES), and in 2016, became a full-time graduate student.
John likes the fact that MES is an interdisciplinary program that cuts across different schools at Penn, giving him the opportunity to work with and learn from faculty at the Wharton School, as well as Engineering and Arts & Sciences. The combination of course work in areas as diverse as risk analysis, energy policy, and nonprofit management suited his ultimate goal of making a move from the private to the public sector. As John explained, “I returned to school to expand my role as a broad influencer” on flood prevention and mitigation practices. “Policymaking was, prior to returning to school, something that I taught myself,” through volunteer work and board memberships. But pursuing the degree at Penn has “formalized that foundation.”
One benefit of being a “non-traditional” student is that John has been able to draw on his professional contacts in making the most of his educational experiences. In the summer of 2016, John was recruited by a colleague from the Association of State Floodplain Managers for an internship in the Obama White House, in the Office of Management and Budget. At OMB, John focused on the federal implementation of President Obama’s Executive Order 13690, reinforcing federal agency floodplain management rules and guidance in adhering to stricter Federal Flood Risk Management Standard for federally funded investments. It was enormously satisfying to work at the federal level on issues he had been tackling for so many years within his local community. The enthusiasm he had for those projects, however, has been matched by the frustration in seeing how they have fared under the Trump Administration. The Climate Action Plan was removed from the White House website within an hour of President Trump’s inauguration, and while the executive order John worked diligently on still exists, it is essentially (as John put it) “in mothballs.”
Undeterred, though, in his dedication to advancing flood resiliency at the federal level, John returned to DC in 2017 to get additional policy experience as a US Senate fellow—but he moved further down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, to work on the legislative side. Again, John’s longstanding involvement with flood mitigation in New Jersey proved formative. Back in 2007, following April statewide flooding, John had visited the offices of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and met Jason Tuber, Menendez’s current Senior Advisor. Ten years later, Jason paved the way for John to join the Senator’s office as a Fellow in January 2017 being advised by Professor Kunreuther, working on the National Flood Insurance Program, which is due to expire the end of September. The opportunity has afforded John the chance to sit in on Senate hearings, listening to experts in his field testify on projects that hit close to home, and employing this knowledge in formulating policy objectives and drafting legislation. The level of expertise that Capitol Hill has exposed him to, John affirms, has been incredibly impressive and inspiring, and he will be continuing his fellowship until the program is reauthorized.
John will complete his master’s degree in December. What comes next? As his own experiences have shown, there are many actors that work on managing and mitigating flood disasters—nonprofits, private firms, as well as local, state, and federal policymakers—and John is open to all the different opportunities they offer. If he had his choice, though, his aspiration would be to serve as a chief resiliency officer at the state level, possibly for his home state of New Jersey, which has been the focus of so much of his flood work over the years. One thing is certain, though, looking at the climate science: we need publicly-minded thinkers like John who can translate what we know about flood risk into sound, fair, and efficient public policies.