James Lee Witt on Potential Disasters, Confidence to Survive

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Mar. 18, 2013 12:00 am  

James Lee Witt

James Lee Witt, a native of Dardanelle, was a Yell County judge chosen in 1988 by then-Gov. Bill Clinton to lead Arkansas’ Office of Emergency Services. After Clinton was elected president in 1992, he named Witt to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which he headed from 1993 to 2001. Witt founded Witt Associates, an international disaster management firm, in 2001. In January, Witt Associates merged with O’Brien’s Response Management to form Witt O’Brien’s. It is based in Washington, D.C., but maintains a government relations office in Little Rock. Witt and his wife, Lea Ellen, live in Dardanelle.

Q: What drew you to your current career path?

A: Growing up in Wildcat Holler, outside of Dardanelle, I had seen my father and mother survive not just the expected hardships of farm life, which included the usual drought-failed crops but also the tornado that turned our house on its foundation when I was 5 and the fire that destroyed everything we had when I was 15. I saw my parents fight their way through all the bad times, and I have endured some pretty dicey moments myself, and I have come to believe that you need uncommon common sense. Uncommon common sense is nothing more than a bone-deep faith in your ability to cope in a bad situation — faith that you can decide what to do, you can figure out how to do it, you can pick up the pieces of your life and go on.

It is frightening the first time you have to tap into that confidence at your core. But the more you’re tested, the more you can rely on your experience at tapping into it. You don’t have to be afraid that it’ll fail you. Whatever it is inside us that instills, facilitates and conveys such confidence, the truth about it is this: It grows, like bark, with every trial you face. So experiencing personal disaster and seeing people go through the heartache of loss, and then, years ago, seeing FEMA not do things that seemed like common sense in my own county in Arkansas — those experiences led me to run for Yell County judge, where I thought that common sense was needed in disaster rebuilding.

When you agreed to serve in the Clinton administration, did you ever envision disaster preparation becoming such a big private business?

While serving as FEMA director for two terms with President Clinton, I didn’t envision what I would do beyond serving in the administration. I was approaching 60 years old by then and probably thought I would retire on our Arkansas farm. But as the closing days of the Clinton administration came, I saw the definite need for not only disaster preparedness services for private corporations, communities and even foreign governments, but I also saw that states and local governments don’t always have experienced full-time people on staff to navigate the FEMA system in disaster response. Eighty percent of companies that do not recover from a disaster within one month are likely to go out of business. My fellow Arkansan Mark Merritt and Clinton administration colleagues Barry Scanlon and Pate Felts and I wanted to do something about changing that.

What are the greatest potential disasters facing the United States?

The greatest potential disaster in the United States is actually the one that affects you personally. On the personal level, the greatest potential disasters are fire and power outages. Those two disasters tend to impact individuals more than entire communities. Arkansas as well as Connecticut, New Orleans and even Washington, D.C., have experienced significant long-term power outages due to weather. The public is very impatient when it comes to power outages.

Saying that, the greatest non-weather-related disaster is the state of the national grid. We have had the privilege of working with state and local governments in communities after significant power outages to help develop their resilience plans. And I can say that, along with local businesses in the area, those communities have greatly improved their ability to rebound after significant power outages.

In terms of whole communities, Arkansas faces the potential of an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault. A 2009 study by the University of Illinois found that a modern day replay of the [1811-1812] New Madrid earthquakes would be a mega-catastrophe. Last year marked the 200th anniversary of the New Madrid Fault earthquakes. If it happened today over what is now an eight-state region, including the Mississippi River Valley, it could render 7 million people homeless, damage 715,000 buildings and cause total economic harm approaching $1 trillion.

In addition, though Arkansas might not be affected directly, 53 percent of our country’s population lives in a coastal state, and those states face an increased threat from storm surge. During the past two years, most damage by hurricane hasn’t been the wind but the water. National policymakers are now changing the hurricane forecast and warnings to be more targeted to storm surge threat and are beginning public awareness efforts to let people know if they are in a flood zone by surge.

Where do you stand on the controversial-in-some-quarters issue of climate change? How serious a threat is it to the U.S.? To the world?

 

 

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