Keyes, currently a management and program analyst for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Honolulu District, was in her Hawaii home when word began to spread that major wildfires were burning on the island of Maui.

“My first reaction was to figure out how I can help, what I can donate,” the 2013 MSU graduate said. “I don’t know why my job didn’t cross my mind, but by the time I made it to work that next morning we were already hearing that we were possibly going to deploy.”

When the fires broke out, Keyes was scheduled to travel to Alabama for emergency response training. Instead, she got on-the-job training as she worked with the team responsible for distributing and powering generators for critical facilities. It was her first deployment with the corps’ Power Response Team, a unit that can be sent anywhere in the world to coordinate with local officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency when a disaster occurs.

“The Power Response Team typically responds to hurricanes and tornadoes, so a wildfire wasn’t usual territory,” Keyes said. “Plus, being on an island creates a lot of challenges. But we were proud to be answering the call.”

When Keyes and the corps team arrived on Maui, the scale of the damage was readily apparent. The wind-driven wildfires burned approximately 17,000 acres, causing more than 100 deaths and an estimated $5.5 billion in damage.

Working long hours to fill immediate needs, Keyes helped distribute generators to hospitals, nursing homes and temporary morgues established after the
fires. And she wasn’t the only Bulldog responding to the damage. Jon Runnels, a Pass Christian native and 2015 civil engineering graduate, oversaw quality assurance for the Power Response Team. Having grown up witnessing Mississippians come together in times of need, Keyes and Runnels had first-hand knowledge of the importance of helping others.

“Being able to help others in a time of need, I don’t see a higher calling than that. To rise to that calling, there’s just nothing more important,” Runnels said. “It’s not uncommon to stop and help people in Mississippi when you see someone broken down on the side of the road. It’s just something Mississippians do. It’s the right thing to do.”

A group of construction workers and engineers wearing hard hats and high-visibility safety vests stand on a paved area with mountains and a partly cloudy sky in the background.

Keyes said she always wanted to attend Mississippi State. After two years at Jones College, she moved to Starkville and began studying public relations. The next moves, however, were much harder to predict.

A mentor sent Keyes information about an internship with the U.S. Army’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program in upstate New York. She secured the internship and was then hired full time, leading programs aimed at boosting morale and welfare among service members and their families. While the work was rewarding, the weather was not.

“Soldiers from Alaska would come to the Army base I was working at to do their cold weather training,” Keyes said. “I want to say it hit -43 degrees my last winter there. Eventually, I thought, ‘Why am I living somewhere where the air hurts my face?’”

After vacationing in Oahu, Keyes sought opportunities to continue working in the federal government in Hawaii. When no leads worked out, she went on unpaid leave and moved to the island intending to find a job. That’s when she found a job with the Corps of Engineers as an administrative assistant and has moved up the ranks to her current position.

While working for the government, Keyes has also earned a master’s degree from Walden University in clinical social work, a field that she hopes to enter after her federal service is complete. She said her background in communication has helped her throughout her career.

“Studying communication at MSU has honestly been the foundation for being able to do what I do and be who I am,” Keyes said. “Communication has been in every single thing that I have done thus far in my journey. I had awesome teachers at MSU who would share all the different journeys they have been on. But I never imagined in my wildest dreams moving to Hawaii or working for the Army Corps of Engineers would be part of mine.

“It is something so much bigger than just me,” she continued. “It’s been an amazing ride and I think it will continue to be amazing.”

By James Carskadon, Photos Submitted