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As director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from 1993 to 2001, James Lee Witt oversaw and managed the recovery efforts of more than 350 disasters. Currently, the 62-year-old is chairman and chief executive of James Lee Witt Associates, a disaster recovery and mitigation service firm in Washington. Witt is not slowing down anytime soon, as he oversees a bevy of clients, such as Nextel Communications Inc.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Whelen Engineering Company Inc., a Connecticut-based manufacturer of public- and industrial-warning equipment. A year after a series of deadly storms hit the United States’ Southeast and Gulf Coast regions, including the one-two punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Witt chatted with Legal Times reporter Joe Crea about delays in debris removal from the Gulf Coast, the current state of disaster practices, and his 200-acre boyhood farm in Dardanelle, Ark. • See also: A City Gone Silent: New Orleans A Year After Katrina
A year later, what’s your take on the recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast? I think it’s starting to really move now. There was so much debris there. They had problems with 245,000 homes. A lot of them they are trying to renovate. New Orleans’ downtown is coming back strong. It’s starting to move, but Louisiana had three to four times more devastation. It was so much wider spread because they were hit by Katrina and Rita.
They say, “No good recovery can begin until the debris is removed.” Why has this taken so long? You had an awful lot of contractors moving debris, but you had different phases of the debris coming out. You had downed trees and stuff from Katrina and the floods. You had everybody cleaning that out. Then you had the refrigerators and appliances piled up. Now you have the gutting of the houses. It’s been a nonstop debris removal.
There’s been a lot of discussion over what role FEMA should play during a disaster. What is FEMA’s role? Their role, in a case like Katrina . . . is to respond in support of state and local government when it’s beyond the capabilities of state and local government. Their role is to step in and support them in response and recovery and work closely with the state and local governments. But with such a catastrophic event there, it was a tough prospect. We knew it would take some time to get it done. When [the] Northridge [earthquake] happened [in California in 1994], by the time you did debris removal, a temporary-housing program, and then started in the recovery efforts . . . FEMA had an office out there in Pasadena for six to seven years because of all the grant management and documentation for all of the projects. And then you had the mitigation program. Each of the projects had to be monitored and closed out.
How long do you anticipate FEMA will remain in the Gulf? At least five years, maybe longer.
How does your disaster-recovery practice differ from others here in Washington? What do you offer to prospective clients that they may not find at other disaster-recovery shops? Well, we are kind of unique. All the people that work for us are very good at what they do, but they also know all the rules and regulations state and local governments need to comply with. They make sure all the documentation is there for reimbursement. State and local governments get into trouble for not documenting everything they need. We also have probably some of the nation’s best mitigation grant managers that work for us. We have the experience and background to help supplement in areas that the states and local governments do not have the experience and capability to do.
Disaster practices tend to play up worst-case scenarios when searching for new clients — earthquakes leveling St. Louis, for instance. That’s a region of the country that hasn’t experienced devastating earth tremors in a hundred years. Does this strategy play more on reality or fear, or is this simply a way such practices stay competitive?
• Re-Energizing After Hurricane Katrina (June 12, 2006)• Katrina Lobbying Sees a Shift in Focus (March 27, 2006)• Helping Others, Helping Themselves (January 9, 2006)• In the Wake of Katrina (November 28, 2005)• Learning From Katrina (November 7, 2005)• After the Deluge, Tax Relief? (October 17, 2005)• Reed Smith Attorneys Help Inmates Displaced by Katrina (October 10, 2005)

Well, I think Katrina has been a wake-up call to states and local governments about being better prepared. Florida is one of the best-prepared states to deal with hurricanes. Because of Katrina, a lot of major metropolitan areas are looking at plans. For instance, we got a contract from Philadelphia to look at their emergency plan. Mayor [John] Street said, “We are good at doing special events. How good are we at fulfilling our responsibility if we get hit?” We are helping them implement the priority issues that they’ve identified and [are] working with their different city departments.

What’s Philadelphia’s main concern? A lot of it was evacuation and emergency management capacity. They only had five people in emergency management. They are going to strengthen that; also their inoperability of communications. We found that [the] private sector is absolutely critical in terms of a major event. [There are] a lot of things that needed to be implemented to help them respond.
In your work you’re obviously very good at taking care of the logistics and details. But what has your style been like when confronted by the human element to these disasters? The first thing you have to take care of [is] the people, and you have to plan for that. And you have to create partnerships and build those relationships with other local governments. You can’t go into an event without having built those partnerships. I think if you plan together, train together, and exercise together, you will have good response. You have to build those relationships and respond in a way that will meet those needs in a critical time.
Your firm recently became a division of GlobalOptions Group Inc. How has that worked out? Extremely well. There are five companies in GlobalOptions. What it has done for us is give us more capabilities than we could have ever dreamed of, which we did not have before. It’s been able to provide more capabilities to our clients. That’s been a huge asset to us. The good thing: I’m still CEO of James Lee Witt Associates.
What has your relationship been like with FEMA in this administration? The relationship is fine. We work very closely with [current FEMA Director] Dave Paulison, who is a good friend and very, very capable of building FEMA back and supporting it 100 percent. He’s got the right kind of experience for the job.
If President Bush had asked you to remain FEMA director when he assumed the presidency in 2000, would you have stayed? I would have for a while, to help through the transition. President Bush talked about it [during the 2000 campaign]. I told him, “I’d help you all I can, but you really need your own people.” But I would have helped with the transition for a few months.
Should the FEMA director be elevated to presidential Cabinet status again? Well, I think so. I met with both Republicans and Democrats over the last year on the Hill about this. I’d prefer it to be an independent agency, but it looks like they will probably leave it in Homeland Security. If it is going to be left there, you need to give FEMA its own budget, and they need the emergency grant programs under FEMA. Then the mitigation program needs to be fully funded, and the director needs to be empowered to make those decisions. They need to be able to make timely decisions that will be effective, and that was the problem.
The problem with former FEMA Director Michael Brown’s leadership? I think so. A lot of it.
You are currently at your farm in Arkansas. What’s that like? I have an office here. It’s a 200-acre cattle farm. The house was built in 1853, and this was the farm I grew up on. My dad was the farm laborer, and my mother kept house. It’s an old Southern two-story antebellum home that I recently put energy-efficient windows into.

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