James Lee Witt

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James Witt
James Lee Witt, official FEMA photo portrait.jpg
Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency
In office
April 5, 1993 – January 20, 2001
President Bill Clinton
Preceded by Wallace Stickney
Succeeded by Joe Allbaugh
Personal details
Born (1944-01-06) January 6, 1944 (age 72)
Paris, Arkansas, U.S.
Political party Democratic

James Lee Witt (born January 6, 1944) is a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), during the tenure of U.S. President Bill Clinton and is often credited with raising the agency’s level of professionalism and ability to respond to disasters.

Early life[edit]

Witt was born in Paris, Arkansas, and was raised in Dardanelle, in Yell County, Arkansas. He and Clinton met as boys in Little League in 1974.[1] He founded a construction business in 1968. At 34, he was elected County Judge of Yell County. Witt was re-elected to the post six times and was recognized by the National Association of Counties for his work. Witt was a charter Board Chairman of Child Development Inc., which works to advance Head Start programs.[citation needed]

Government career[edit]

In 1988, shortly after being reelected county Judge, an administrative position he had held for ten years, Witt was appointed by then-Governor Bill Clinton to be the head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. There he reorganized the state's emergency management process. Clinton subsequently moved the new Fire Protection Services Program to OES, including the board and the grant program, which was administered in conjunction with the state Insurance Department."[2]

When Clinton was elected President, he appointed Witt to head FEMA, for which Witt was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1993. In 1996, FEMA was given cabinet rank.[3]

During his tenure Witt was able to overcome FEMA's previously poor reputation. A 1992 interim report by the Congress (prior to Hurricane Andrew, which led to further criticism of FEMA) had said, "FEMA is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment ..." The comment had been provoked by the appointment of Wallace Stickney, described in the report as ``weak`` and ``uninterested in the substantive programs of FEMA," owing his post to his relationship with former White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.[4]

By 1996, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial said, "FEMA has developed a sterling reputation for delivering disaster-relief services, a far cry from its abysmal standing before James Lee Witt took its helm in 1993. How did Witt turn FEMA around so quickly? Well, he is the first director of the agency to have emergency-management experience. He stopped the staffing of the agency by political patronage. He removed layers of bureaucracy. Most important, he instilled in the agency a spirit of preparedness, of service to the customer, of willingness to listen to ideas of local and state officials to make the system work better."[5]

Witt's eight-year term in office saw approximately 348 Presidentially declared disaster areas in more than 6,500 counties and in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. Witt supervised the response to the 1997 Red River Flood— a devastating flood in the Dakotas—the most costly earthquake, and a dozen serious hurricanes.[citation needed]

Post-FEMA management and consulting[edit]

On September 3, 2005, he was hired by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to oversee reconstruction efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.[6] In December 2005, the University of Texas System hired his firm to prepare, process, and recover claims for damages from FEMA related to natural disasters. Witt served as CEO of the International Code Council, which sets international standards for building construction, 2003-06.

By August 2007, Witt was serving on the Management Team of Global Options Group LLC, as President of James Lee Witt Associates LLC, which provided consulting on emergency and disaster preparedness to local and state governments. In 2013, the firm merged with O'Brien's Response Management to become Witt|O'Brien's, with Witt as Executive Board Chair. In 2015, it was acquired by SEACOR.[7]

Electoral career[edit]

Witt was mentioned as a potential candidate for Governor of Arkansas in 1997 but took himself out of consideration and stayed at FEMA until he was replaced by Joe Allbaugh, the first appointee of President George W. Bush. Witt announced in October 2013 that he expected to run for Congress in 2014 in Arkansas's 4th congressional district.[8][9] On November 4, 2014 Witt lost the race to GOP candidate Bruce Westerman 53.7-42.6%.[10]


  1. ^ Martin, Jonathan (2013-12-21). "Is Arkansas Still Friendly to Bill? Clinton Tests It". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-10-12. 
  2. ^ Witt, James Lee, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Retrieved 13 January 2016.
  3. ^ "President Clinton Raises FEMA Director to Cabinet Status" (Press release). Federal Emergency Management Agency. 1996-02-26. Archived from the original on January 16, 1997. Retrieved 2010-03-03. 
  4. ^ Fema`s Effectiveness Falls Short, Washington Times, Bill Gertz, September 4, 1992. Retrieved 10 January 2016.
  5. ^ Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 12, 1996, "Short Takes; Quick Witt helps"
  6. ^ http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article? AID=/20050903/APN/509030885&cachetime=3&template=dateline
  7. ^ [1]. Retrieved 9 January 2016.
  8. ^ Brantley, Max (11 October 2013). "James Lee Witt '80 percent' decided on 4th District congressional run". Arkansas Times. Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  9. ^ http://www.politico.com/story/2013/11/james-lee-witt-arkansas-house-race-2014-99417.html
  10. ^ Arkansas 4th District - Westerman vs. Witt, Real Clear Politics, 2014. Retrieved 9 January 2016.


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Wallace Stickney
Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency
Succeeded by
Joe Allbaugh
  1. ^ Goss, Kay C. "James Lee Witt (1944--)". Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Retrieved 3 June 2015.