James Lee Witt (1944–)
James Lee Witt served as the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Bill Clinton and is often credited with raising the agency’s level of professionalism and ability to respond to disasters. Since his departure from FEMA, he has worked as a consultant on emergency management issues across the nation and world.
James Lee Witt was born in Paris (Logan County) on January 6, 1944. He grew up in Dardanelle (Yell County), attending Dardanelle public schools and playing football at Dardanelle High School, graduating in 1962. In 1961, he married Lea Ellen Hodges of Dardanelle; they have two sons.
When Witt was twenty-four years old, he started Witt Construction Company. For the next ten years, while heading up his company, he also served as chair of Child Development, Incorporated, which advanced Head Start programs. He was elected Yell County judge in 1978. Right after being reelected Yell County judge in 1988, he was appointed director of what was then the state Office of Emergency Services (OES) by Governor Bill Clinton. The governor 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.
In 1993, President Clinton appointed Witt as director of FEMA; three years later, he elevated FEMA to cabinet level. During previous administrations, FEMA was known as a “political dumping ground” for people with only a partisan connection. Clinton worked with Witt to ensure that the presidential appointees at FEMA under his administration were professionals with emergency management knowledge. Witt and his team worked hard to instill in FEMA a spirit of partnership and a culture of preparedness and responsiveness. Witt and his team stayed in very close touch with state, tribal, and local officials; with other federal departments andagencies; and with associations, organizations, educational institutions, and special needs populations.
During President Clinton’s tenure, 348 presidentially declared disasters occurred in more than 6,500 counties, covering all fifty states and six territories. Witt supervised the response to the most costly flood disaster in the nation’s history up to that time (1993); the most costly earthquake, which occurred in January 1994 in Los Angeles County, California; and a dozen serious hurricanes. The appointees and staff at FEMA earned recognition for how closely and effectively they worked together. During the later months of his tenure at FEMA, Witt began working with famed author James Morgan in writing a book, Stronger in the Broken Places, published in 2002 and detailing numerous scenarios observed by Witt in his disaster work.
Upon his departure from the federal government at the close of President Clinton’s last term in January 2001, Witt launched his own emergency management consulting business, James Lee Witt Associates, LLC, which provides consulting on emergency and disaster preparedness to governments around the world. In 2006, Witt sold his company, though he remains CEO; he named Barry Scanlon as president of the company in 2008. Witt is currently on the management team of the Global Options Group, LLC, and, from 2003 to 2006, also served as CEO of the International Code Council.
On September 3, 2005, he was hired by Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana to oversee reconstruction efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and to secure FEMA funding for recovery projects. In addition, Witt has performed preparedness, response, and recovery work for numerous states and local jurisdictions, as well as for foreign countries.
Arkansas Tech University of Russellville (Pope County) conveyed its first honorary doctorate to Witt in 2007. He currently maintains residences in Alexandria, Virginia, and Dardanelle. In November 2013, he announced his candidacy for the position U.S. Representative serving Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District. However, despite support from Bill Clinton, he lost to Bruce Westerman.
For additional information:
James Lee Witt Associates. http://www.wittassociates.com/ (accessed October 10, 2007).
Witt, James Lee, and James Morgan. Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph. New York: Times Books, 2002.
Kay C. Goss
Last Updated: 06/29/2016