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Retiring emergency management director reminds Minnesotans 'to help each other when bad things happen'

Dec 01, 2022 10:53AM ● By Editor
Retiring HSEM Director Joe Kelly.  Photo: MN DPS

From the Minnesota Department of Public Safety • December 1, 2022

If Joe Kelly could leave you with one piece of advice, it would be: “Make a kit and have a plan."

Kelly, who has served as our Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) director since January 2015, is retiring this month after more than 30 years of public service in the U.S. Army, Minnesota National Guard and HSEM.

Kelly admits he gladly spent many of those years in the background, but he was thrust into the spotlight in 2020 as state leaders shared daily updates on the COVID-19 pandemic and later the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd.

“We say all disasters are local. Our job is to go help them get through it and rebuild and try to do what we can to make sure it doesn't happen again," Kelly said.

Kelly took a roundabout path to becoming an emergency manager. He grew up in a small town, Olivia, Minn., then went to St. John's University, where he majored in accounting and graduated into an economic recession. It took about six months for him to decide the accounting world was not for him.

“I told my boss I was thankful for the opportunity, but I really like this soldiering stuff. I think I'm going to try to figure out how to be a soldier on active duty and work full-time for the National Guard. That's kind of what I did for the next 25 years," Kelly said.

Kelly was involved in planning, coordinating, and executing military operations in support of civil authorities for more than 17 years, including serving as the joint military task force commander during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Throughout his service he has gained experience in responding to all types of natural and other emergencies and disasters in Minnesota.

Kelly has stayed humble throughout his years of service. He does allow himself to feel a little pride in his work to bring the new state emergency operations center, which is scheduled to break ground in the spring and open in 2024.

“I know how important the work my people do is, and I know how communities across Minnesota rely on them. Facilities do matter for the quality of work that can get done," Kelly said.

The current emergency operations center got a workout under his tenure. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest in 2020 and 2021, the emergency operations center ran at full activation for a history-making 475 days, providing a central location to provide support to every community in Minnesota.

While the emergency operations center served its purpose, the activation also demonstrated that state agencies need more space and a better communications infrastructure to do its job to the best of its ability.

His recommendation for his replacement is to pay attention to greater Minnesota. Kelly considers himself a small-town kid – something that has been very helpful in his role as emergency management director. Big cities have a lot of resources, but when you get out to small towns, where Kelly grew up, resources are thin, and they need help.

Small towns are also where you'll find Kelly after his retirement. He's looking forward to getting back to the small-town Minnesota life. ​“These are Minnesotans. Politics doesn't matter. Geography doesn't matter. We need to help each other when bad things happen," Kelly said.