Preparation leads to opportunity.
And if there’s advice St. Lucas native Dr. Clair Blong could give to today’s youth, that would be it.
“I would advise students to prepare yourself to the maximum extent possible in your discipline and you will be amazed at the awesome opportunities that will present themselves,” said Blong.
Honored by peers
Blong, a 1960 graduate of St. Luke’s High School and son of Luke and Agnes Blong of St. Lucas, recently was honored by his peers at a retirement luncheon recognizing his 42-year career with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with the Joint Civilian Service Commendation Award for his storied career, which took him on repeated trips to numerous foreign countries, including 35 trips to the former Soviet Union.
Blong said he found his four-plus decades of being involved with both domestic and international natural and economic disasters “pretty rewarding.”
He said of all of the disasters his agency was involved in, Hurricane Katrina was the most riveting.
“That was studied carefully and exhaustively. My feeling on that was the state and local government could have done a lot more. It was a catastrophic event that fell on the federal government,” said Blong.
He said FEMA is “not designed to be the first responder” in situations such as Katrina.
Blong said FEMA is designed as backup to state and local governments by mitigating long-term problems.
“Katrina was a good lesson learned. In a big disaster like that, a lot of time local resources will be immobilized. In the case of Katrina, fire departments and police got out of Dodge, too,” he said.
“At the local level, many New Orleans emergency responders evacuated,” said Blong, adding he thinks FEMA “took the fall” on that situation and there was plenty of blame to go around.
“We delivered 58,000 semi-loads of supplies to Louisiana and Mississippi in a 30-day period. We mobilized a lot of resources in a small amount of time,” he said.
Blong added in much of the international work he has done, he has learned superpowers like the U.S. can’t do it all.
“In the international work we were doing to help countries build their own resources through training and education, I learned they’ve got to do it themselves,” he said.
“These experiences also drove home the difficulty and limited impact of outside assistance, no matter how well-intended it may be.”
Blong spent a number of years in the early to mid-90s helping in the former Soviet Union, which looked to the western model of commerce.
“Their economies were imploding … Our team studied what the problems were and we helped get American firms involved. Americans were, paid to go over and give them technical advice … They were dealing with a catastrophic economic situation,” he said.
In addition, he said half of those countries were suffering the effects of radiation from Chernobyl.
“The locals were in a dire situation,” he said.
“A lot of those places now are still dealing with the impact of that political collapse that occurred, not unlike the American South after the Civil War. The South was defeated in 1865, but it wasn’t until WWII they were brought out of their dire economic malaise.”
Blong added he was “fortunate to be able to be on the ground in Russia and other newly independent states and witness the impacts of the catastrophic collapse of the Soviet Union on people’s lives, their well-being and industry.”
Blong said with each disaster around the world, FEMA and other emergency management partners always try to learn from what they are doing, to help with the next crisis.
“This is a key area in disaster response, and you can only do it if you have designated people who are observing what’s going on. There are now whole teams that will observe an operations center and how they’re processing information, sharing and moving info in a timely manner to get resources where they’re needed,” he said.
Blong said he definitely thinks FEMA was able to use lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina to help in Hurricane Sandy, but there is always more learning to be done.
“There are issues you can’t anticipate until you get on the ground. In the Bronx and elsewhere, we learned the backup generators were on the ground floor. When the tidal surge comes in, you lose your power. When you don’t have power in a high rise, you don’t have elevators. It was a big learning experience,” he said.
Blong said another area of growth in his profession has been an emphasis in providing psychiatric and counseling services for both those affected by disaster and the staff dealing with those affected.
“Both survivors and first responders experience really horrific events. They need help too and counseling is an important dimension of that,” he said.
“This is a key area for community resilience.”
Blong said it has been rewarding for him to watch the development of emergency management as a profession.
“It didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago. It sort of matured at the local and state levels through fire departments and emergency medical services,” he said.
“Now there are a lot of colleges offering programs.”
Blong said he would encourage any young people who might have an interest to explore it.
“Some of the most rewarding experiences came when I was visiting someone’s home in Russia, after working with them all day … just hearing their view of how they see the world,” he said.
Blong encouraged anyone pursuing a degree to diversify their studies.
“I think learning a foreign language, focusing on a specific discipline, being interdisciplinary in problem solving and traveling as much as possible to learn of other cultures and regions of the world, is vital to prepare for the challenges of the rapidly changing world.”
A lifetime of learning
After graduating from the now defunct St. Luke’s Catholic High School, Blong received a BA from Loras College in political science and history, an MA in political science from Marquette University and his Ph.D. in international relations and comparative politics from the University of Maryland. He also received a diploma from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University in political economy and resources management.