WALT KELLEY: A TEXAS TRAILBLAZER
Few can say they have built their own emergency management program from the ground up. Walt Kelley, Emergency Administration Manager for the City of Amarillo, is one of those few.
Kelley will retire the 23rd of this month – his birthday – having served the city of Amarillo, and Potter and Randall counties for more than 28 years. Sharon Nalls, Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Houston and President of the Emergency Management Association of Texas (EMAT), said when she needs advice, he is one of the people she turns to.
“I think those of us in emergency management owe him enormous gratitude for the ground work laid for getting us to where we are today,” said Nalls. “You can’t stay in that position that long unless you have been successful and continue to be successful day in and out. When I think emergency management, I think Walt Kelley.”
Before beginning his emergency management career, Kelley served 20 years in the U.S. Navy retiring in Amarillo as a Senior Chief Yeoman in 1982.
“I went to work for the City of Amarillo on a Monday directly following my retirement from the Navy the previous Friday,” said Kelley. “Because I was retired military and had experience in emergency management they thought I would be a good fit for the job.”
Kelley said a lot of his training was on the job and learning from others. “I was pretty much able to develop Amarillo’s programs patterned after other programs and trial and error. At the time I think we were the only the program in the state that was a city / two-county program. I was a city employee and was also appointed as the county EMC.”
Alan Taylor, former Amarillo City Manager recalled that, “most cities back then didn’t have an emergency management program. So, Walt basically built Amarillo’s program from scratch. His office was in the basement of city hall. He made an Emergency Operations Center out of that area. Looking back he has built one of the finest programs around.”
In February 2010, the City of Amarillo celebrated the opening of a new 10,000-square foot Emergency Operations Center. Taylor noted that, “when I became city manager in 2004, one of the things that Walt and I knew was that we needed a larger room. We operated out of that little room in the basement through 9/11, the wildfires in 2005-2006, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We were blessed when Chief Jack Colley came in and did the actual opening and ribbon cutting for the EOC. I think that was a tribute to Walt and it was a real pleasure.”
Kelley said being a founding member and past president of EMAT, is another of his happiest accomplishments. And, gaining recognition of emergency management as a profession has been another goal Kelley has pursued.
“Walt has been an excellent ambassador for the emergency management industry helping to raise awareness about the importance of planning and ensuring the communities in our area are ready and prepared,” said Amarillo City Manager Jarrett Atkinson. “We’re in Amarillo – 1,000 miles from the coast – yet we brought in evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And you know, for a person who has spent their entire emergency management career in this region, not having to deal with bringing in evacuees from across the state, he handled that situation so well.”
David Solis, TDEM Regional Liaison Officer for the Amarillo area knows Kelley to be a respected mentor to many in the state’s emergency management community.
“Walt has been a good mentor to me and a greater friend. I’m originally from Amarillo and have known Walt a long time. Walt is one of the guys you feel safe when he is around. During the 2006 wildfires, we had fires over a huge area. I personally think that when Walt came into the DDC, we all thought, it’s not that bad, Walt is here.”
Kevin Starbuck, Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Amarillo and Potter and Randall counties has a similar impression of his boss.
“Walt exemplifies the role of a coordinator,” said Starbuck. “He is recognized by someone just about anywhere we go because he has taken the time to develop relationships instead of simply managing a program. Walt has simply become part of the fabric of his community and profession, and in the process has made Amarillo a far safer and more prepared place then when he found it. I am proud to have worked for Walt and consider him a mentor and more importantly, a life-long friend.”
After achieving many of his goals and establishing a program he feels will carry on well without him, Kelley is looking forward to retirement and spending more time with his family.
“It’s time for new ideas and new things to happen,” said Kelley. “The way I see it, this program is good for another 29 years. The main thing I have done is my job. I walked into a job with no one and have now built an organization with seven people. Kevin is a sharp young man and will do a great job to carry the organization forward.”