Blake Velde, MEM ’82

“We don’t save lives; we try to make life worth living again.” 

Blake Velde

Blake came to the Nicholas School, then the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, in 1980 during a period of transition.  As he recounted, the school was MUCH different in those days – largely a male, much smaller student body of 60.  Blake shared stories of field days and “intramural inner tube water polo” matches, of the “Stumpies,” then MF and MEM students, and their chants and chain saws. While at the DUFES, he worked 20 hours per week at the Environmental Protection Agency in RTP, focusing on Clean Air Act regulations, completing his thesis there on smog alerts.

Then it was out into the world, Masters of Environmental Management degree in hand.  Blake has had a fascinating career!  Starting with an internship in Washington, DC, he worked with the infamous Rita Lavelle and staff on the early SuperFund program. That internship led to his first full-time position in the young Superfund and Superfund enforcement programs. Continuing his work with SuperFund cleanup for seven years, Blake was on the litigation team for Rocky Mountain Arsenal who won against Shell and the Army.  That site is now a wildlife refuge outside of Denver, Colorado.

After that victory, Blake was recruited by the Department of Defense where he worked for seven years on miliary base closure and clean ups and oversight of DOD recycling program.  While assigned to clean-up a military base in Canada, Blake also worked on cleaning up the Defense Early Warning system used during the cold war.  Blake had his first exposure in working with Tribes/Indigenous People and credits this position to being where he honed his ability to learn, to listen, and to build trusting relationships with communities historically marginalized. Blake left the DOD at the height of “don’t ask don’t tell” and went to a department that was more welcoming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized Blake’s skill set and recruited him to the U.S. Forest Service overseeing the USDA – wide cleanup program.  Blake noted that USDA was LGBTQIA+ friendly at that time, so he joined their team to lead their clean-up program as one of the first MEMs. He was also the USDA representation on the National Response Team for Oil and Hazardous Substances where he worked on disaster relief projects such as Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, and 9/11. When he retired in 2014, his Assistant Secretary noted that “Blake’s career has been one disaster after another, and we are glad for that!”

Blake had a profound impact on civil rights and environmental justice policies while at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He served as a board member and President of the then USDA Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Employee organization making significant contributions to improve LGBTQ+ employees and customers.  He is most proud to have updated the National Response Plan after hurricane Katrina.  Prior to his work, the plan didn’t include response for natural and cultural resources or a plan to include pets/animals at evacuation shelters. 

Post official retirement, Blake returned to federal service as a rehired annuitant with the Department of the Interior, continuing his work with long term natural and cultural resource recovery with FEMA.  He worked on recovery efforts involving the Paradise Wildfires in California. In North Carolina, Blake worked with the Lumbee Tribe, who are not a federally recognized Tribe, and therefore believed they couldn’t get assistance with the devastation of Hurricane Matthew from the federal government. It is not the Department of the Interior or FEMA’s position to work with non-federally recognized Tribes, but Blake found a loophole. The Lumbee are a nonprofit!  Leveraging his Duke network, Blake was able to build relationships with governmental agencies and the Tribe to provide financial assistance and to include the Lumbee Tribe with disaster relief and recovery programs. The Lumbee were able to restore their lake, cultural center, housing, and feeding programs that were devastated by Matthew.

Blake challenges new and recent MEM alumni to “think outside the box” and to consider positions with governmental agencies.  He noted, “they need career professionals that specialize in the environment” especially Emergency Management and Response.  “They need the skills that our NSOE students and alumni have.  The state and local governments are great starting points.”  Many government environmental jobs are not only at the EPA – all agencies have compliance programs and some like Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security have larger programs than EPA.  It is key to consider working on the regulated side of environmental jobs as well as working as the regulator.

Most days, Blake can be leading advocacy work for the LGBTQIA+ community, playing the clarinet in South Florida Pride Band, or singing with a community choir.  Blake lives with his husband in Fort Lauderdale, Florida dodging hurricanes when he’s not responding to them.