James Lee Witt to return to FEMA?

Word is that FEMA may become an independent agency once again, and it’s possible that former director James Lee Witt could be tapped to return and run the agency, at least for a while.  I have enormous respect for Witt, whom I met on several occasions when I worked for the agency in the 90s.  He rightly receives accolades for transforming FEMA into a first-class government agency that effectively managed disaster operations and implemented programs to reduce disaster losses.

However, this seems an odd choice for both the Obama administration as well as for Mr. Witt himself.  Given the significant work that his company James Lee Witt Associates has done for the government, including $40 million in post-Katrina services in Louisiana (which is unlikely to be paying for the work without some level of funding from DHS), it’s a tad unseemly for him to come back and manage FEMA.  There’s also professional risk involved for Witt to roll the dice on a second turnaround of the agency, when one overwhelming disaster could permanently tarnish his reputation in public service.

A year is unlikely to be enough time to usher in the rebirth of the FEMA that once was, if that’s even possible.  What the agency needs is continuity of leadership.  It’s been on a bureaucratic roller coaster since it was folded into DHS, and I’m not convinced that bringing on an interim director, even one with Witt’s experience and clout, is the way forward.

I’m particularly concerned about the prospect of Mark Merritt, one of the associates in James Lee’s firm, being groomed for the position to succeed Witt.  Merritt has a solid background in managing disaster bureaucracy, but he lacks the experience of running an entire emergency management agency at any level of government.  A party to the same business dealings as Witt, Merritt would also raise eyebrows by taking the helm of a major client an agency that indirectly funds some of the firm’s work.

If FEMA is about to start with a clean slate once again as an independent agency, why not find an experienced state emergency management director (or even a talented local director) who can stick around and see the agency through what hopefully will be its last major transition for a while.  That formula seemed to work fairly well when Witt, then a little known state emergency management director from Arkansas, was brought in to aid the new Clinton administration.  But FEMA is not the same agency it was in 1993, or even in 2001 when Witt left the agency after eight years of service.  While it’s tempting to think of what might have been had the Bush administration retained Witt, I prefer to focus on what needs to be, and that is a FEMA that is up to the task of managing 21st century disasters.  James Lee Witt is likely the best director the agency has ever had, but it’s time for new blood in FEMA.

[Via Kevin Drum]

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One Response to “James Lee Witt to return to FEMA?”

  1. anonymous Says:

    Witt and his crew are incredibly overrated. While at FEMA Witt focused exclusively on recovery and mitigation and paid scant attention to preparedness and all but ignored response operations. FEMA was so unprepared to manage big responses in the 2000s because Witt did nothing to improve FEMAs response capabilities. As a long-time FEMA official, I fear a return of Witt et all — they fundamentally don’t really understand emergency management and will harm the progress the agency has made in improving its Preparedness programs and response posture.

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