James Lee Witt on Potential Disasters, Confidence to Survive

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?

Regardless of where you stand on climate change, there is a definite increase in significant weather events across the country and around the world. At FEMA and even today at Witt O’Brien’s, we focus on an all-hazards approach to disaster preparedness. No matter what the reason, we need to prepare ourselves for any disaster, and the all-hazards approach works. What we need to focus on today is not if a disaster is going to affect you but rather when. Every community, business and even individuals should take stock of what mitigation efforts they can take to reduce the risk of being negatively impacted by such an occurrence.

What’s the best advice that you can give a business owner about planning for a potential disaster such as a fire, tornado or flood?

Businesses can do much to prepare for disaster or any hazard that can affect their business or bottom line. Seventy-five percent of companies without business continuity plans fail within three years of a disaster. Companies that aren’t able to resume operations within 10 days of a disaster are not likely to survive. Of those businesses that experience a disaster and have no emergency plan, 43 percent never reopen; of those that do reopen, only 29 percent are still operating two years later.

I would suggest that businesses look at their business continuity plan and if they don’t have one, start one now. They will need to organize, develop and administer a preparedness program. They first should gather information about the hazards and risks, which could be as simple as a fire or power outage. They then should write a preparedness plan that includes resource management, emergency response, crisis communication, business continuity, information technology, employee assistance, incident management and training. Then they must test, exercise and evaluate their plan and identify what needs to be improved. And finally, businesses should ensure that their employees are up to speed personally and encourage emergency preparedness being instituted individually at their homes. Employees who are prepared at their homes are employees who are able to come to work to get you back in business following a disaster.

How much time do you spend in Arkansas these days, and do you still have a farm in Yell County?

My wife of 50 years, Lea Ellen, and I live full time on our farm in Dardanelle. We bought the farm at which my parents worked when I was a kid. Witt O’Brien’s has an office in Little Rock and that allows us to enjoy our golden years with our boys, their wives and our three wonderful grandchildren in the state we love.