Former San José City Manager Norberto Dueñas is in what he likes to call his “second career.”
The veteran civil servant, who got his start as an intern for then-councilmember Jim Beall, was employed by the city of San José for 33 years before he retired last fall. After a tumultuous two years as city manager, which included an intense battle over the city’s pension and benefits reform, Dueñas knew it was time for him to take a step back.
But it wasn’t long into his retirement when a new and unexpected career opportunity appeared. A familiar face from Witt O’Brien’s – an emergency management disaster recovery firm – contacted him. The firm had worked with Dueñas and the city of San José during the aftermath of the disastrous Coyote Creek flooding in 2017 and now they needed help from someone with local government experience.
They needed him in hurricane-torn Puerto Rico in a week. And Dueñas made the big move.
“I spent almost three months responding to (proposals) from the various municipalities in Puerto Rico,” Dueñas said. “They were seeking help from companies like Witt O’Brien’s (to) help with the FEMA process, damages assessments and all the different things you have to do after a disaster.”
In February, Dueñas moved about 50 miles across the Caribbean Sea to the United States Virgin Islands – a territory that, like Puerto Rico, was still feeling the devastating effects from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Dueñas began sorting through nearly $2 billion in community development block grant disaster recovery funds that the federal government had allocated for the island’s restoration. But Dueñas said his agency and government officials were required to document the impact of the storm and the unmet needs of the territory before the Department of Housing and Urban Development handed over any funds.
Dueñas said U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp submitted an action plan for the first wave of funding in May and HUD approved $242 million for housing, economic revitalization and infrastructure needs two months later.
The first recipient of the funding was the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, an organization that Dueñas said normally receives $1.2 to $1.3 million in community development block grants a year.
“There’s that excitement of looking at the possibility of really making some significant transformation here on the island,” he said. “The goal is to create that resilience and do the improvements in such a way that the island, the infrastructure, the homes, the schools and the hospitals we’re looking to build are built in a way that are able to withstand the next storms that come.”
Now Witt O’Brien’s team members are working on identifying priorities for the second wave of funding – a whopping $779 million.
Dueñas said he laughs when he thinks about his new career because it’s something he’d never expected to be doing. But after years of public service and community engagement, it appears that he’s right at home in his new role.
“When I left the city, I thought to myself, ‘What is the part of my career and my job that I liked the most?’” he said. “I really enjoyed being able to provide services to communities that traditionally were not able to access their services for whatever reasons.”
Beall – who now holds the senate seat for California’s 15th district – said that Dueñas’ empathy and compassion are a testament to where he is from. Beall said he was born in Cuba and later moved to El Salvador before he came to San Jose.
“I’m so proud of him as a human being and as a professional to decide that he wanted to jump right out of the city manager’s office and right into helping victims of disaster,” Beall said. “I’m very proud of his strong spirit and belief that he can do the best he can to help them rebuild their countries as quickly as possible.”
But his passion for helping people recover from catastrophes thousands of miles away also started at home in San Jose. He’s lived through his own disaster: the Coyote Creek floods.
“Disasters, they’re different magnitudes,” Dueñas said. “When you think of what happened, you had two category five hurricanes over a period of 12 to 13 days. But for me, the Coyote Creek flood was my category five hurricane in San Jose.”
The February 2017 floods forced 14,000 San Jose residents out of their homes and caused $100 million in property damages. Victims of the flood have sought legal action against the city of San Jose, Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and a court hearing is scheduled early next year.
As for Dueñas, he isn’t sure how long he’ll stay in the Virgin Islands.
It’s been a great training ground, he said, but he’d like to be closer to San José where his family still lives. And with disasters like the deadly Camp Fire – which as of Nov. 17 has burned 148,000 acres, killed 71 people and destroyed over 12,000 structures across Butte County, California – the need for assistance in rebuilding is always changing.
“Our goal here is to work ourselves out of a job,” he said. “We’re helping, but we’re also training local staff to take this and carry it on. I have no doubt in my mind that the process is such that you can do all the training and try to prepare, but the next disaster is never like the first.”
(photo caption: Former San Jose City Manager Norberto Dueñas is seen assessing damages in Puerto Rico on the coast in Juana Díaz)