Video games didn’t feature large in Dani Newcomb’s childhood. “I played a boardgame called Save the Whales,” she says with a laugh over coffee. It’s part of her explanation when asked what drove her into the climate change field. That and living close to the Great Lakes.
Water and tropical forests figure large in Newcomb’s story. A high school class in river ecology led to university studies in water resources and climate change. Some of it was hands-on –- and wet. For three months, she lived in a national forest in Puerto Rico, studying aquatic snails “who literally spend their entire lives migrating upstream.”
Out of school, Newcomb immediately returned to Latin America with the Peace Corps. For two years, she worked closely with rural, indigenous communities in Mexico.
“This was the first time that I was really exposed to the human element of development,” she said. When she finished her tour, Newcomb briefly worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington on its Acid Rain Program, but she said she knew she wanted to return overseas.
You could see the difference our long-term programs have made in combatting deforestation and helping people make a sizable income
Hired by USAID in 2011, she was first sent to Guatemala, where she managed programs to help indigenous communities keep forested landscapes intact and earn a sustainable living.
“It was amazing work,” she said. “You could see the difference our long-term programs have made in combatting deforestation and helping people make a sizable income.”
The hands-on work was also a chance to explore Guatemala’s terrain: She hiked 15 of its 45 volcanoes.
In September 2013, she was sent to the Philippines. Soon after she arrived, Typhoon Haiyan – the strongest storm ever to make landfall – hit provinces south of the capital. She boarded a small plane and flew to Tacloban, the epicenter of where it made landfall, three weeks later. Relief teams were still clearing debris and recovering bodies.
“I had never seen anything like that,” she said. “Flying into the area, everything was flattened as far as the eye could see.”
The typhoon exposed how vulnerable the Philippines is to climate change. “There is a potential for storms like this to happen more frequently,” Newcomb said. The storm ravaged water pipes and other infrastructure and getting fresh water to communities was difficult in its aftermath.
Newcomb spearheaded efforts to help the provinces hit by Haiyan to repair their water systems and make them more resilient. Her team also helped them secure more fresh water and improve planning for future storms.
These efforts paid off when Typhoon Hagupit hit a year later. Water utilities that Newcomb’s team worked with were more prepared. “They came through relatively unscathed or were able to restore water services quickly after the storm,” she said.
She is now leading USAID’s broader efforts to help the Philippines adapt to climate change and mitigate its carbon emissions. This includes climate risk screening across all development sectors “so our programs will be more sustainable.”
The Chicago native plans to stay overseas, apply the important lessons she has learned in the Philippines to her next post – and keep exploring. She’s been to 40 of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands so far.