Redwood City – As the first in a series of New Year’s storms battered the Bay Area – creeks rising, trees falling – Adam Ely’s job was wholly simple and eminently complex.
Ely, the County of San Mateo’s incident commander, had to ensure local disaster response machinery moved in harmony with cities, the state, utilities, nonprofit service organizations and volunteer groups.
“The goal is to get the right people together at the right time to serve the people who need assistance. That’s the most basic function of all,” Ely said in an interview in the County’s Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, during a lull in the storms.
“There is a massive amount of information flowing in and out of the EOC during and after disaster response, and if it gets communicated appropriately we can help deploy resources and take steps that really make a difference,” he said.
Leading the County’s response effort requires coordination with 20 cities, special districts, the American Red Cross and local service organizations, to name a few. This is in addition to the County’s Sheriff’s Office, County Fire, Department of Public Works, Department of Emergency Management and more.
This is one in a series of articles aiming to debureaucratize the bureaucracy.
Perhaps at no other time does a local government have a greater responsibility to the public than to communicate clear information during emergencies.
For Ely, managing complex, high-stakes situations has been the foundation of his career.
Ely (pronounced E LEE) joined the County in 2013 following work as a private attorney and public defender on death penalty and juvenile justice cases.
He worked in the County Attorney’s Office for several years before being tapped by County Executive Mike Callagy in 2019 to lead the Project Development Unit, which coordinates and oversees ground-up construction projects.
Ely arrived as the County, under the direction of the Board of Supervisors, invested heavily in improving facilities that serve residents with the greatest needs.
He led teams building the Peninsula’s first Navigation Center, the linchpin in the County’s plan to effectively end homelessness, replacing the decades-old Cordilleras Mental Health Center with a modern campus with green spaces and updating the San Mateo County Health campus.
These projects were some of the most complex the County has overseen due to the myriad regulatory requirements for the types of services provided. Ely’s legal background, project management skills and leadership has been instrumental.
Based on that experience, Callagy late in 2022 chose Ely as one of three deputy county executives who coordinate the County’s daily functions.
Asked why he selected Ely to lead the County’s storm response, Callagy said, “Adam knows what levers to pull to get things done and how to get things done efficiently.”
“And just as important,” Callagy said, “he cares about this entire community, and it shows.”
That caring can be traced to Ely’s upbringing. His father was a psychologist who oversaw mental health care at Veterans Affairs hospitals in the Western United States, including at the Menlo Park VA.
“My father spent his whole career in public service for the VA,” Ely said. “We lived at VA facilities at different times when I was growing up. And I started volunteering (at the Menlo Park VA) when I was 14.”
That experience gave him a deep appreciation for and faith in the role of government.
While volunteering – and living on the grounds of – the Menlo Park VA campus, Ely attended Carlmont High School in Belmont. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a law degree at UCLA.
Since Ely began long shifts as the incident commander, he has broken away from the EOC to visit areas hit hardest by the storms and flooding. That includes meeting residents of Pescadero, La Honda and other communities to help ensure those communities are getting what they need from all levels of government.
Then it’s back to the Emergency Operations Center for a series of briefings and planning sessions, in a zip-up fleece and jeans, giving updates and learning about emerging issues from Daly City to East Palo Alto.
The challenge from the latest storms is in some ways just beginning. Scores of homes were flooded or damaged and the cleanup will last weeks, and those residents will turn to private insurance, nonprofit service agencies and local government for guidance and assistance.
“The VA, and the public service work I did in and after law school, helped me recognize that there are plenty of great opportunities out there to help others and that public service work can be very rewarding,” Ely said.
“I just feel at home working in public service, lucky I get to do that in San Mateo County, and proud of any contribution I can make in whatever role I have the opportunity to fill.”
Ely lives in San Mateo County with his wife and two children.
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