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Army and FEMA veteran Clay Spangenberg ’70 helps Dept. of Homeland Security and communities plan for emergencies

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Clay Spangenberg ’70 was working in an operations center early one morning when the phone rang. As a longtime leader with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he had been working 13-hour shifts since soon after the disastrous storm hit the Gulf Coast.

“I get a call: They’re going to evacuate the Superdome,” he recalls. “They need a thousand buses by 6 a.m. It’s 2 a.m., Labor Day. FEMA doesn’t own buses.”

Though Spangenberg was able to help raise more than 150 buses, he is still shocked by how little the public understands about emergency management—what it can do and its limitations.

“Emergency management response is a three-legged stool with local, state, and federal legs,” he says, explaining that if one leg is weaker than the others, the stool will not stand. “Everybody’s got to pull their weight to the best of their abilities.”

After more than 30 years in the Army and Army Reserve and more than 15 years with FEMA, Spangenberg knows how to get things done. Since 2008, he has been helping communities develop and expand their emergency preparedness capabilities as the chief operating officer of SLS Enterprises, a small consulting firm. SLS provided support to the Department of Homeland Security’s Emergency Response Directorate in strategic planning and reviewing and editing standard operating procedures for joint field offices—the facilities FEMA establishes with state counterparts to coordinate the provision of resources to local governments as they respond to and recover from disasters and emergencies.

The chemistry graduate’s service to the nation has included response to most of the worst disasters the country has seen in the past 20 years: the Midwest’s Great River flood of 1993, the terrorist attacks of 2001, the recovery of the disintegrated Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, numerous tornadoes, and, of course, hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Despite formally retiring from FEMA in 2008, Spangenberg has continued to work closely with the agency through SLS. Indeed, the three weeks after he retired, he was back at his old desk answering the same phone, as though nothing had changed. He also serves as a volunteer emergency management leader in Grant County, S.D., where he lives with his wife, assisting with planning and preparedness in response operations.

While Spangenberg is willing and able to share knowledge with his community—and virtually any emergency professional who asks—there is only so much that small towns and regions are able to absorb.

“Small towns are really able to band together and help each other,” he says. “Unfortunately, they need help in doing the planning and to review plans, to ask the tough questions. They don’t have a lot of experience with things like this. They don’t know the questions to ask. I can bring that to the table and help them out. But generally, emergency management is not the highest priority in a community or county budget. Emergency management often takes a back seat, especially in times of small budgets.”

Even in towns, cities, or counties with a strong tax base that can afford to conduct drills, a lack of imagination can pose a significant challenge.

“It’s very tough to do exercises in emergency management,” he says. “You can’t replicate the devastation of a Katrina. Without the sense of emergency, people are waiting to be told things to do.”

When he looks back on Katrina, Spangenberg recalls the 42 consecutive nights of 13-hour shifts and the agency’s inability to generate positive press despite the legal restrictions on how it was able to respond.

“FEMA has never been a first responder. It coordinates,” he explains. “It assists in responding and recovering from a disaster. They don’t replicate police and fire.”

In other words, short of martial law, FEMA can’t simply swoop in to help an area that has been devastated by a terrible natural or manmade event.

When it can, FEMA now positions food, water, tarps, and other equipment ahead of the path of a storm, yet out of harm’s way. For example, after the recent flooding in North Dakota, the agency very quickly sent federal resources out of Denver.

“FEMA learned a lot of lessons [as a result of Katrina],” Spangenberg says. “We had always waited until someone said ‘I need help.’ But sometimes you can’t wait. You have to be proactive and move resources very quickly.”

In the end, what matters most to Spangenberg is knowing that he is able to help.

“I enjoy serving my country and working for the public,” he says. “The sense of helping and making a difference is what emergency management is all about. It doesn’t matter if you’re local, state, or federal. If you can do something to help, you do it.”

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