Before addressing Minnesotans at each daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, Joe Kelly first thinks about what his late father would want to hear if he were still out there listening for updates.
“I’m trying to make things digestible and understandable for the people of Minnesota in an environment where there’s so much going on and so much data, so much information,” said Kelly, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management since 2015. “I’m trying to give them some anchor points.”
Since being tapped to lead the division, Kelly has most often been tasked with helping communities pick up the pieces after natural disasters such as floods and tornadoes. Now, a global pandemic that has every state in its grip is presenting perhaps the sternest challenge in a career that also includes 31 years of service in the U.S. Army and Minnesota National Guard.
Kelly leads an organization that was first created as the Department of Civil Defense in 1951 amid fears of nuclear war. Beginning in the 1970s, it underwent a rebranding that emphasized its modern mandate to coordinate responses to crises like the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse or, more commonly, any number of natural disasters around the state.
A branch of the state’s Public Safety Department, Homeland Security and Emergency Management has often gone unnoticed even by those who work in state government. But the COVID-19 pandemic, and Gov. Tim Walz’s March 13 peacetime emergency declaration, vaulted Kelly to a public presence rare for the role. Now he’s quarterbacking a team that includes public safety, health and economic officials gathered either virtually or in person at the State Emergency Operations Center in St. Paul.
Colleagues describe the Olivia, Minn., native as a calming presence who doesn’t grow ruffled in a crisis and who can deliver concise yet important information in little time. Kelly has drawn on his past military service, which included deployments to Iraq and leading a joint military task force during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
Kelly credits his cool under fire to his late father, Jack, a truck driver and mechanic who also served in the National Guard and as a volunteer firefighter.
“I learned that from him that we need to serve the communities where we live,” Kelly said.
Though apolitical, Kelly quickly bought into Walz’s “One Minnesota” mantra, a phrase he said has become more than just a 2018 campaign slogan.
“I feel we are working together as a team, trying to take care of people, trying to protect our health care system and trying to get through this thing,” Kelly said.
Much of how state officials need to confront COVID-19’s all-encompassing effects will come from within Minnesota’s borders: Whereas states can assist one another on natural disaster cleanup, the pandemic has left virtually every state strapped for resources.
Walz, himself a 24-year Army National Guard veteran, quickly wanted to keep Kelly in place when he took office in January 2019. In part that was because of his military service.
“It’s just thinking strategically on what it takes to carry out a mission,” said Walz, who also worked with Kelly on federal disaster declarations while serving in Congress. “I don’t hide it: I think there’s many ways to get this experience, but I’m pretty partial, especially in emergency management, to have someone who has that military experience.”
With workdays that can easily sail past 12 to 14 hours, Kelly said he finds occasional escape in reading and enjoying the outdoors near his lakeside home in Lindstrom.
A student of history, Kelly recently gifted Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington a copy of a book about 1918, when Minnesota endured the concurrent tolls of World War I, a worldwide influenza outbreak that killed 10,000 in the state, and a spate of fires that devastated thousands of acres across seven counties in northeastern Minnesota.
“For me, this pandemic has taken us into unprecedented and uncharted waters in terms of there is no clear end in sight; there is no clear landmark,” Harrington said. “Joe, I think, has taken this from a historical perspective knowing both the military and public health history of the 1918 pandemic.”
Kelly’s emergency operations center is described as the heart of the state’s response to COVID-19. It is designed to develop action plans out of swirling sets of ideas from participants from across state government.
That includes working with the Department of Employment and Economic Development on unemployment insurance, the Health Department on trying to set up temporary care facilities, and the Department of Labor and Industry on what workplaces should remain closed. Harrington said the search for personal protective equipment also remains a key task.
“That role is really different and far more challenging than most of the disasters that I would have been involved with up until now,” Harrington said.
In many ways, colleagues say, the Joe Kelly that Minnesotans hear during the daily health briefings is the same one who huddles with Harrington each morning on daily briefings for Walz. Kelly’s portion of the update is usually limited to one to two minutes. But that’s typically ample time for Kelly, whom Harrington described as well prepared and unwilling to “waste any additional energy on making speeches around the information.”
Assistant Public Safety Commissioner Bruce West, who oversees Kelly’s division, said the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unpredictable crisis — whereas most other emergencies have some precedent.
“We’ve been through many floods and tornadoes and straight-line wind storms in Minnesota — there’s a playbook,” West said. “And here, I’m not necessarily saying we are making it up as we go, but things are changing on a daily basis.”
From the daily private briefings to his public statements, Walz and Harrington see a sense of control projected by Kelly in a time of intense uncertainty.
“You send Joe into a room of folks who are having the worst day of their life, and they seem to see kind of this light around Joe that says he’s here to help and he’s somebody you can trust,” Harrington said.