Both Democrats and Republicans agree that James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management agency, represents the best the Clinton administration had to offer.
Tuscaloosa, Ala.- James Lee Witt was supposed to be enjoying the start of his Christmas vacation in his home state of Arkansas. But when a tornado ripped through this city on Dec. 16-killing 11 people, injuring dozens more, and destroying numerous homes and businesses-Witt, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had to get back to work. On Dec. 19, a government jet flew into Little Rock, Ark., to pick up Witt and head over to the disaster site in Alabama. "Every time he vacations in Arkansas, something happens," said Ron Grimes, FEMA's director of congressional affairs, who was accompanying Witt. "Here we are again." (After he returned from Tuscaloosa, a Christmas Day ice storm in Arkansas further disrupted Witt's vacation. He lost water and electricity at his farm. As the Associated Press quipped, "You know it's a disaster when the head of [FEMA] can't escape the damage.") During his almost eight years in office, Witt has presided over 370 major-disaster declarations by the President. When he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Witt was greeted by Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman; Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala.; and Reps. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., and Earl Hilliard, D-Ala. The group boarded an Army Blackhawk helicopter to survey the tornado's path of destruction. Later, on foot, they inspected cratered-in mobile homes, flipped-over cars, and a graveyard of other debris. Wearing blue jeans, Gore-Tex hiking boots-instead of his usual ostrich-skin cowboy boots-and a winter jacket, Witt chatted with local officials, drank coffee with cleanup crewmen, and worked to reassure the people who had lost their homes that the U.S. government was there to help them. "I've seen 56 tornados since 1993," he said at a press conference held outside in the frigid air. "At a time like this, it takes all of us. We are going to help you." Once the press conference had concluded, Shelby approached Witt and placed his hand on the director's shoulder. "You're the best," he told Witt. Bachus had more kind words, telling National Journal: "Gov. [George W.] Bush would be well served to appoint James Lee Witt, if he wants to put a Democrat [at FEMA]." According to Witt, these Republican legislators told him that they would personally recommend him to Bush, if Witt wanted to remain at the agency. But Witt's tenure is coming to an end. Last week, Bush appointed Joe Allbaugh, his presidential campaign manager, to lead FEMA. Witt will most likely return to Arkansas, where he might run for governor or for Congress. Admiration for Witt isn't limited to Alabama. During the first presidential debate last fall, both Bush and Al Gore were eager to one-up each other in their praise for the director. "I've got to pay the Administration a compliment," Bush remarked. "James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis." Gore then added: "I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out. And FEMA has been a major flagship project of our reinventing-government efforts." (Of course, after the debate, Gore lost points when it was revealed that he actually traveled with FEMA's deputy director, and not Witt.) FEMA aides joke today that the real winner of the debate wasn't Bush or Gore-it was James Lee Witt. Indeed, at a time when Washington seems more polarized than ever, most Democrats and Republicans have been able to agree on one thing: that the little-known Witt represents the very best of the Clinton Administration. He has made FEMA much more responsive to the public. He has worked to prevent disasters. He has cut a significant amount of bureaucratic red tape. And he has helped boost the public image of a once-troubled agency that was about to be placed under the governmental guillotine. "For many years, FEMA had been regarded almost universally as an agency not up to the job," President Clinton said in 1996. "And I'm very proud that under James Lee Witt's management ... FEMA is now a model disaster-relief agency, and, in some corners, thought to be by far the most successful part of the federal government today." No More `Bureaucratic Jackasses'
Out of all of Clinton's pals who followed him to Washington from Arkansas, James Lee Witt, 57, has not only been perhaps the most successful, he also seems to be one of the few who hasn't been hurt or ruined by Washington. Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster committed suicide. Webster Hubbell, the associate attorney general, went to prison. And Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was fired. Witt's success story is a special one. The son of a farmer raised in rural Arkansas, Witt never made it beyond high school. After graduation, he entered the construction business. He was later elected to six terms as county judge-the chief elected official of Yell County, Ark. Stories abound about the ways in which Witt, while serving in that position, and his two sons would personally help residents in times of distress. Often, the three men would sprinkle salt on the roads during freezes and stack sandbags during storms. In 1988, then-Gov. Clinton appointed Witt to direct the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. When Clinton took over the White House in 1993, he tapped Witt to head FEMA. Created in 1979, the agency oversees the government's response to natural disasters and terrorist acts. It also helps distribute federal aid to people and businesses that have lost property in disasters. When he came to Washington, Witt took the reins of an agency that was in utter disarray. FEMA, critics charged, didn't respond quickly to disasters. It didn't work well with other federal agencies and local governments. It was wrapped in bureaucratic red tape. And above all, critics said, it was a dumping ground for incompetent bureaucrats and political lackeys. "It used to be called a ... turkey farm," explained Larry Zensinger, FEMA's director of human services, who has worked at the agency since 1979. After Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast in 1989, an earthquake shook California in the same year, and Hurricane Andrew damaged Florida in 1992, attacks on the agency reached their apex. Critics argued that FEMA's response to these disasters was too slow. "It is the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I have ever encountered in my life," Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., complained on the Senate floor in the aftermath of Hugo. Some members of Congress, including Rep. Fortney H. "Pete" Stark, D-Calif., called for the agency's elimination and placing disaster relief in the hands of the military. "[FEMA's] response was a blizzard of red tape, a hurricane of hot air, but no avalanche of help-more like a glacial mountain of delay," Stark said. But Witt has turned the agency around. One of FEMA's institutional problems was that it was a product of the Cold War, and many of its resources were devoted to dealing with a possible nuclear attack on the United States. After taking office, Witt worked to redirect those resources to help with disaster relief. Said Zensinger: "The thinking was: `We didn't have the Cold War anymore. Why don't [we] pay more attention to domestic issues?' " Witt has also made the agency more responsive to the victims of natural disasters. By implementing a toll-free hot line and upgrading the agency's technology, Witt has helped to reduce from an average of 30 days to just five to 10 days the time it takes for victims to apply for and receive federal financial assistance. In addition, Witt has made disaster mitigation one of his priorities. He created a program called Project Impact, which targets communities where disasters are likely to occur. Under the program, communities form partnerships with both the government and the private sector to enforce stricter building codes and to strengthen existing infrastructure. FEMA has also moved or bought 19,000 homes that are prone to massive flooding. According to Dale Shipley, the executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, mitigation has been Witt's greatest achievement. "That's his legacy, I think," Shipley said. Despite these accomplishments, Witt has not been able to completely avoid criticism. James Bovard, a conservative commentator, contends that Clinton and Witt have turned FEMA into just another barrel of Washington pork by throwing around disaster money-and that fact explains why the agency has become so popular with Congress and the states. He also notes that the number of presidentially declared disasters has skyrocketed on Clinton's watch. "FEMA has done a very good job of buying a great image," Bovard said. But Witt dismisses that complaint. "I think that's just a bunch of hogwash as far as I'm concerned. Our programs are designed to help the people that are in need. And they go through an application process. If they're eligible, then we can help them." A Model for Bush Over the past month, President-elect Bush has been busy assembling his team of Cabinet secretaries, agency heads, and other key advisers. But as Bush and his aides round out the rest of his Administration, it might benefit them to examine Witt's tenure. During his time in Washington, Witt has displayed some attributes and taken some actions that have helped make him a model public servant. Perhaps the most important reason for Witt's success has been his prior work experience as director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. In fact, Witt is the only FEMA director who has previously had experience in disaster relief. And observers say that that has greatly improved the agency's relations with the states. "He knows the programs. He knows the needs of the states," said Trina Hembree, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association. "His experience at the local and state level has made a difference," noted Jim Greene, administrator of Montana's Disaster and Emergency Services. "All disasters are local, and you need to remember that." During a 1996 meeting with other emergency management officials, Witt recalled a conversation concerning FEMA that President Clinton had with Pennsylvania's congressional delegation. "One of the most important things he ... said [was]: `In any future Administrations, I challenge you as members of Congress to never let a director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency be appointed and confirmed without having the background of emergency management and that experience.'" Allbaugh, Bush's choice for FEMA director, doesn't have emergency management experience, but he did serve as Bush's chief of staff in Texas, where he helped shape the governor's response to natural disasters. Allbaugh wins praise for his serious attitude and his managerial and organizational skills. But perhaps his most important asset is his close relationship with President-elect Bush. "The person who runs FEMA," Bush said at the news conference announcing Allbaugh's selection, "is someone who must have the trust of the President, because [he] really is the first voice oftentimes that someone-whose life's been turned upside down-hears from." Another reason for Witt's success has been his effort to improve FEMA's public image. In particular, he has tried to make the agency a more visible sign of the government's intention to help people. For example, during his inspection of the destruction in Tuscaloosa, Witt tried to reassure the residents whose homes had been damaged by the tornado that the government was there to help them. "He is a down-home guy," said Ohio's Shipley. "He kills the King's English. You would never mistake him for an English professor. But that's not the issue with him.... What he does is try to provide a service to people who need it." Witt, moreover, has made it his crusade to educate the public about what FEMA is, and he says that required establishing good relations with the press. "When they call, let's give them an answer," Witt recalled telling his staff. "You know, if it's bad news, let's give it to them anyway. Let's give them all the information they need, because we've got to build a rapport with the news media." Witt also worked to forge strong ties with Congress. When FEMA was at risk of being eliminated after he took over as director in 1993, Witt met with members, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who at that time chaired the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of FEMA. Witt says he asked her advice on how to turn around the agency. "She told me some things that she felt like needed to be done." Witt has had another thing working for him: He has had a good relationship with the President. In fact, it has been reported that Clinton has invited Witt over to the White House to watch University of Arkansas Razorback basketball games on television. "The President [has] had a lot of confidence in him, and they [have been] able to communicate," said Zensinger. In addition, Witt has made a point of listening to and getting to know the civil servants at FEMA. Indeed, during his first day on the job in 1993, he stood at the entrance of the agency's headquarters to introduce himself to all of the employees. "One of the most important things for people coming into a new Administration is to talk to your career service employees. They're very good, very dedicated," Witt said. "I think people tend to forget that sometimes." Witt offers a final piece of advice to the men and women who are leaving their homes to work as top-level aides in the Bush Administration: "Bring your family with you when you come to Washington." After all, if Witt's experience is any indication, they can forget about ever having a peaceful vacation at home.