James Witt: Why Federal Disaster Relief Works

Chief of FEMA focuses on efficiency and long-term efforts to help victims.

By , Staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor

After a half decade of heading the nation's emergency response agency, James Lee Witt is something of an expert on sleeping with one eye open.

Being on call 24-hours-a-day - even on vacation - is part of the job description.

Last fall director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tried to take a few days off in the Colorado high country. But Mr. Witt awoke one morning to an unforecast blizzard and a couple of anxious park rangers waving an emergency presidential summons.

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With a can-do improvisation and determination that epitomizes his style of management, he pulled a plastic trash bag over each leg and spent a full day hiking through the thigh-deep snow in his makeshift galoshes. He made it - barely - to a meeting with the president in Houston the next day.

On his watch as the director of FEMA, Witt has already overseen federal relief efforts at more than 170 presidentially declared disasters - including some of the nation's worst: the $5.5 billion Northridge, Calif., earthquake and the 1993 Midwest floods.

But with El Nino's saturating winter rains sure to exacerbate annual spring flooding, and with growing concerns over how to respond to terrorism, Witt is hardly resting on his laurels.

"What we do is almost like being in a war. But we have been in a defensive mode ... reacting. What we need to do now is go on the offensive," says the soft-spoken Arkansan who followed his longtime friend Bill Clinton to Washington.

Part of what makes Witt work say his supporters, is his genuine compassion. He is a natural fit, they say, to chair an agency designed to help victims of disaster get back on their feet.

Agency observers say Witt's legacy will not only be restoration of confidence in FEMA - once criticized for slow and inadequate response highlighted by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 - but for his long-term, proactive philosophy of dealing with disaster.

"The devastation I've seen ... it tires you out. The good side is you get to help people and communities out. But it drives you," say Witt.

Project Impact

He hopes to see Project Impact, now under way in pilot communities, become standard as it spreads across the nation.

Under the program, disaster experts assess where communities and individual homes are most vulnerable to destructive events. At risk areas learn how to prepare structures against nature's destructive forces, create a game plan for evacuation or protection, and rehearse them.

Terrorism response

Witt also points with pride to the Domestic Emergency Preparedness Training and Exercise Program designed to prepare cities for identifying and reacting to chemical or biological attack. It was a program born out of the lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Local emergency teams credit FEMA training for the textbook reaction after the blast. "I have no doubt that the secure perimeter helped save lives," says Major Garold Spencer, commander of the Oklahoma City Police Department's Emergency Response Team at the time of the disaster.

"We always figured it would be a tornado or a civic disturbance that put our plans to the test,'' says Maj. Spencer.

Witt was appointed to the FEMA post in April of 1993. The directorship was elevated to a Cabinet-level position in 1996. Unlike his predecessors, Witt is the first FEMA head to come into the job with extensive experience in disaster response.

As director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Service for four years, Witt had already faced some of nature's nastiest tests, including the tornadoes which rip through the state each spring.

"After Witt, I don't think you'll see any other FEMA director come in who doesn't already have an emergency response background," says a FEMA official at headquarters.

The official, one of 2,500 FEMA employees, credits Witt's close working relationship with President Clinton in making the agency more efficient. Regional warehouses have been consolidated from 85 to fewer than half a dozen, and FEMA aid to states now arrives with fewer strings attached.

FEMA teams routinely return to disaster sites, soliciting public feedback on their work. Those surveys showed 45 percent were satisfied with FEMA's efforts in 1992. That satisfaction rate has jumped to 85 percent under Witt.

Clinton, recognizing Witt's effectiveness and popularity in Congress, kept him off the 1996 presidential campaign trail in order to avoid any partisan stain.

In Washington, Witt has developed an ironman reputation. The list of officials who have served the current administration, burned out and returned home, is long. Witt credits his longevity to his family life.

"My wife and I, we have our quiet time, and our prayer time and we supportive of each other," he says.

One of the few complaints the Southerner has of Washington is the local cuisine.

"You just can't get good catfish and hushpuppies around here!" he says with a wink.

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