He helped set up an airport shelter after Sept. 11 and coordinated the response to a crippling ice storm. He's been a volunteer firefighter, worked as an EMT and did first aid in the mountains of New Mexico. And Brad Hubbard has academic credentials, too, about to complete a four-year program in crisis and disaster management.
At just 23, he's exactly what federal emergency officials want.
Hubbard is part of a wave of students in one of academia's newest and fastest-growing fields -- broad programs in emergency management and homeland security seen as a partial solution to the ineffective responses to Hurricane Katrina (search) and other disasters.
"This is all I ever wanted to do," said Hubbard, a Leawood, Kan., native and a student at Central Missouri State University.
Eleven years ago, reeling from flawed responses to hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched an ambitious effort to ensure that disaster officials at all levels of government were trained to deal with catastrophe.
"People got their jobs all kinds of ways," said Wayne Blanchard, who has overseen FEMA's Higher Education Project since its inception. "And generally not because they had any identified management competencies, but who you know."
Cronyism wasn't the only problem. Disaster management wasn't seen as a profession, and adequate training was lacking.
The Higher Education Project sought to change that by persuading colleges to offer degree and certificate programs in emergency management, aimed at producing a new breed of professionals who could assume posts often held by ill-equipped appointees.
Students scattered across the country go through research-based courses in subjects like quarantine and epidemiology; disaster-specific instruction for floods and earthquakes; lectures on politics, planning and leadership; and onsite experience in everything from community emergencies to the Asian tsunami.
"What, ultimately, all of us hoped was that by making this a degree program, we would start churning out and educating emergency managers who had a broader perspective," said George Haddow, a deputy chief of staff for FEMA during the Clinton administration who is now a private emergency management consultant. "Just, generally, professionalize the discipline."
Blanchard says there were four college programs in emergency management in 1994, but today there are 121 and 110 more are under consideration. They're becoming so popular there is a shortage of qualified professors.
"Even before 9/11 all these programs had more business than they could handle," said David Neal, a professor in the Fire and Emergency Management Program at Oklahoma State University.
Salaries are rising in the field, to an average of $45,390 annually, according to May 2004 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though managers in small jurisdictions might make half that and those in the private sector can make double. The U.S. Department of Labor projects emergency management will be one of the fastest-growing fields through 2012.
"Disasters are a growth business in this country," Blanchard said.
Observers say the result of the growth is a community of emergency managers with far different demographics than a decade ago. More have college degrees and more have chosen the field as a first career. They are younger and more diverse.
Why then, with all those advances in the quality of the profession and with so many more qualified people, was the response to Katrina so botched?
Blanchard said it could be five to 10 more years before the true fruits of the program are realized, because the people it attracted are still in low-level positions without the authority to lead a response to an emergency.
Mike Brown, who headed FEMA before stepping down two weeks after Katrina hit New Orleans, had limited experience in disaster relief. He was a lawyer who headed the International Arabian Horse Association before joining the agency in 2001.
And now FEMA's training efforts could be threatened.
The Department of Homeland Security has slashed the budget of the Higher Education Project, as it has for FEMA operations overall. Blanchard said his program budget was about $180,000 before the creation of Homeland Security. He said it is around $35,000 in the current fiscal year and, while the next budget is uncertain, he's been told to prepare for working without program funding.
Blanchard said he hopes the hurricanes will convince authorities of the importance of the Higher Education Project and of a strong emergency response system as a whole.
"Nine-eleven and Katrina you'd think would have a lasting impact," he said. "But after Hurricane Andrew we thought that too."