Joe Kelly thinks it's better if you don't hear from him.

As director of Minnesota's Homeland Security and Emergency Management division, Kelly's work is typically done in the background, coordinating with counties and cities to make sure they're able to respond to floods or the inevitable blizzard.

But for the better part of 2020, Kelly and his team were vaulted to the forefront as the state navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis often put him next to the governor and other state officials on daily televised briefings.

"If you see me on TV, especially talking about COVID, it's all gone bad," Kelly tells his friends and acquaintances. "Let's hope I fade back into the background, where I belong."

Soon he'll step away from the role entirely, leaving after more than a decade at the agency and leading during some of the state's worst crises in a generation. As he heads out the door, Kelly says those stress tests exposed gaps in the state's preparedness plans, but he also hopes they'll make Minnesota better prepared for its next major crisis.

"We shouldn't pretend it's going to be another 100 years," said Kelly, 62. "I hope the lesson was learned — not just here in Minnesota, but across the country — we better up our game and preparedness for another pandemic."

A more than three-decade veteran of the Minnesota National Guard, Kelly first dipped his toe into government work in the mid-1990s as a young major stationed in St. Paul to coordinate with the governor and local officials on civil military operations.

Kelly was brought back in 2008 to help security around the Republican National Convention in St. Paul before being brought on as deputy director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management during Gov. Mark Dayton's administration. In 2015, he took over the director role and stayed through Gov. Tim Walz's first term.

"Whether it's a tornado, a flood, or a snowstorm on Christmas Eve, Joe Kelly is the first call we make for emergency management," said Walz in a statement. "He has continually stepped up to guide Minnesotans through historic challenges — always with calm, steady leadership."

That leadership was put to the test in March 2020, when the state activated its emergency operations center to respond to the pandemic. There was always the potential for a human health emergency, Kelly said, but state officials thought the Department of Health would be able to handle the response.

COVID-19 demanded an all-hands-on-deck approach from the state, requiring leaders across many agencies to work together in a way they'd never had to before, Kelly said.

"Usually we go and help a local community with flooding. We say all disasters are local," he said. "One of the lessons we learned is you can have events where that flips upside down, and the state needs to be in charge and the state needs to take the lead."

In the state's emergency operations center, representatives from different agencies were stationed in one place as they responded to the virus. There were heartbreaking moments, Kelly said, as states competed with each other for limited supplies of ventilators, personal protective equipment and things such as test tubes and masks.

One silver lining of the experience, Kelly said, was that the state saw how useful it was to have an emergency operations center up and running for 475 days, but the center needed more space. He started work more than a dozen years ago to plan and design a new state emergency operations building, which finally got funding during a special session of the Legislature in 2020. The new center is slated to open in Blaine in 2024.

"When this place was running red hot, a lot of the decision makers got to see how inadequate what we have here is," he said. "It was the difference maker."

Even the typical part of the job — responding to natural disasters — has been busier than usual. During his time with the agency, Minnesota experienced 83 state and federal declared disasters. For 2022 alone, 14 disasters have been declared.

Garry Johanson is emergency manager and environmental services officer for Norman County, which has more disaster declarations than any other in the state. Often in contact with the state's emergency chief, Johanson said Kelly has paid attention to greater Minnesota, which often requires more help. He found Kelly's straightforward, easy-to-understand style of communicating effective.

"He's somebody that people sit back and want to hear from and want to listen to, not have to listen to," Johanson said, adding that Kelly has also emphasized better preparedness, especially as trends indicate Minnesota will continue to experience extreme weather incidents.

Even as he prepares to exit the job Dec. 23, Kelly is preaching preparedness.

He worries about the world's reliance on technology and the fragility of the power grid, and Kelly has the possibility of another human health emergency in the back of his mind. To seize some control in emergency situations, Kelly said individuals can do plenty to prepare themselves to be ready for a crisis.

"I'm never a 'plan for the worst' guy, because I think people get paralyzed by that, but we have to plan to respond to everything," Kelly said.

"Our bumper sticker is: Make a kit and have a plan."