By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 12/06/05 12:00 AM EST
The worse things get, the better James Lee Witt performs — managerially and, these days, financially.
Witt, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Clinton and, now, the CEO of James Lee Witt Associates, has become the darling adviser to governments, nonprofit organizations and businesses preparing for or facing natural or man-made disasters.
Witt also noted his role as CEO of the International Code Council, a nonprofit group that establishes uniform rules for building, plumbing and electrical work.
Asked to reconcile the nature of his business — that when trouble strikes, he profits — Witt said, “It’s crazy, isn’t it?”
Last year, at Clinton’s suggestion, Witt formed a business partnership with retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who had just run a losing bid for the Democratic nomination for president, and former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, a lobbyist at Patton Boggs, Clark said in a phone interview from China.
“We want to provide a full-spectrum response to businesses and governments, a complete range of services,” Clark said, adding that the firm has advised the Cayman Islands and several California-based companies on security issues. The firm has expanded so quickly that it moved into a new downtown office this fall.
Former FEMA directors have started their own firms, including Michael Brown, the heavily lampooned former FEMA chief, and his predecessor, Joe Allbaugh. But their firms depend on their contacts inside the Bush administration and GOP circles.
While Witt’s firm also relies on his contacts inside government agencies, he has thrived because of the near-mythic reputation of competence he developed while streamlining and reviving FEMA, long considered a moribund bureaucratic backwater for political appointees, in the 1990s.
“He’s acknowledged as one of government’s great turnaround specialists,” said Paul Light, an expert on public administration at New York University, adding that Witt deserves that reputation. “I think he’s really worth every penny — one of the few people who knows what they’re doing.”
“He is nonpartisan, he’s very experienced and he listens,” Clark said. “He’s low-key and just a really good guy.”
As FEMA director, Witt confronted a terrorist attack in Oklahoma City; 100-year floods in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri; the Northridge, Calif. earthquake; and the crash of TWA Flight 800. He managed the federal government’s response to scores of hurricanes, ice storms, tornadoes and other emergencies spawned by Mother Nature.
He left the Clinton administration in 2000 as one of the few Clinton associates from Arkansas unscathed by controversy and with good relationships on both sides of the aisle. During a summer wildfire in Alaska, he went fishing at 2:30 a.m. with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Stevens, the former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, later carved out money in the Air Force budget to get Witt, as FEMA director, his own airplane. Witt said he never got a chance to use it because he left before the plane was ready.
When wildfires swept Southern California in 2003, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), now chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was upset with FEMA’s slow response and asked Witt how FEMA could respond more quickly, said Jim Specht, Lewis’s spokesman.
While amassing an impressive client list, Witt has written a book, Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph, which offers advice to government and corporate managers based on Witt’s life and work.
Witt, 61, grew up near Dardanelle, Ark., in the west-central part of the state. In his 20s, he drove a dump truck, worked for his father-in-law as a carpenter’s assistant and started his own construction firm. At 34, he was elected to the first of six consecutive terms as a county judge, the position responsible for public works and infrastructure, in Yell County, Ark.
He first worked with then-Gov. Clinton in 1980 during ice- and snowstorms that occurred on seven consecutive Wednesdays. The storms made roads and bridges impassable.
“I told [Clinton], ‘We’re in serious trouble down here,’ … and he gave us a check to buy gravel to get through the next several months,” Witt said in his folksy drawl.
Witt resigned as county judge in 1989 to become director of Arkansas’s emergency-management office.
But Hurricane Katrina shoved him back in the spotlight when, hours after the levees broke in New Orleans, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) recruited him to help manage the recovery effort. As FEMA and state and local agencies blundered through the early days of the flooding, Witt served as a calming presence at press conferences and at appearances with Blanco and President Bush.
The 100,000 pages of documents Blanco handed over to two congressional committees last week detail a brewing political fight between her office and the White House. Witt emerged unscathed from the recriminations.
His presence amid disaster has raised questions about why governments only prepare for the next calamity after one already has occurred.
“It does not have to be that way, but it is,” Witt said.
In the post-Sept. 11 environment, Witt said, state and local governments directed money to warding off and responding to a terrorist attack and did not allocate enough money or human capital to directing disaster preparedness and response.
That’s where his firm steps into the void and offers advice and training to local officials on how to plan and respond to emergencies.
Now that he has managed emergency responses to scores of natural disasters, plane crashes and terrorist attacks, what keeps Witt awake at night?
“When I was FEMA director, it was a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans,” he said, adding that a lingering hurricane off of Miami or the East Coast and a terrorist attack were constant concerns.
Since Katrina, Witt is now concerned about earthquakes in California, specifically “a 7 or 8.0 earthquake along the Hayward Fault in Berkeley,” he said, describing a walk through the University of California at Berkeley’s football stadium, where a crack runs down the center. “The economic losses alone would amount to $20 billion, and that’s not counting the insurance losses.”