FEMA chief brings order out of chaos

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Webster Hubbell: Convicted of swindling money from his former law firm.

David Watkins: Fired for using the president's helicopter for a Frederick County golf trip.


M. Joycelyn Elders: Booted for agreeing that masturbation should be taught in public schools.

It's no secret that President Clinton's high-profile appointees from his home state haven't fared well since coming to town. Many of them have been forced to pack their bags and head back to Arkansas.


But one appointee has turned into a surprising success story for the president.

James Lee Witt, a slow-talking, Skoal-dipping son of a farmer from Wildcat Hollow, Ark., has transformed one of the most-ridiculed federal bureaucracies in Washington into a respectable institution with a growing legion of admirers.

Mr. Witt is running FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The same place that has been a backwater for political hacks and presidential hangers-on. The same place where planners once advised citizens to unplug their televisions to avoid shocks in a nuclear war. The same place that prompted Democratic Sen. Bob Graham to say after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida: "If FEMA was selling hamburgers, they wouldn't have many customers coming back for seconds."

These days, the bashing has all but stopped. Since coming to Washington two years ago, Mr. Witt has been getting praise from local disaster planners and victims around the country after a flurry of earthquakes and fires, floods and twisters.

"He understands what we're going through," says Dave McMillion, director of Maryland's Office of Emergency Management and past president of the National Emergency Management Association. "He talks to people and gets a feel for what's happening."

Within an hour after tornadoes touched down in Baltimore on Nov. 1, 1994, the FEMA director called Mr. McMillion from the scene of a Houston flood. Within 24 hours, Mr. Witt was in Baltimore, surveying the damage and telling local authorities what kind of help they could expect from the federal government.

"That just would never happen before," Mr. McMillion says.

Mr. Witt has also earned respect inside the Washington Beltway for the once-hapless disaster agency.


He has managed to persuade the Joint Chiefs of Staff to let him use their 747s -- designed to manage a nuclear war from the sky -- for high-flying command posts during natural disasters. He has persuaded NASA and the CIA to give him access to secret satellites, snapping pictures of disasters so planners on the ground know what they're up against. He has gotten Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher to ask him at a Cabinet meeting -- half-jokingly -- whether FEMA would be willing to fly a disaster mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"He's turned FEMA around," says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan and a former member of FEMA's advisory board who has been criticizing the agency for years. "He's become a real success story for the Clinton administration."

For Mr. Clinton's Arkansas entourage, there haven't been many successes.

The most tragic illustration was the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.

There are other, less stark, examples. The man Mr. Clinton named to be associate attorney general, Mr. Hubbell, is going to prison. A man he appointed to help run the White House, Mr. Watkins, has been fired. So has the woman he hired to be his surgeon general, Dr. Elders. His chief of staff, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, has been moved aside.

"A lot of people got into trouble because they didn't stick to what they knew," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas. "They ran afoul of the political code in Washington."


Unchanged by Washington

Mr. Witt is sticking to what he knows. He eschews tasseled loafers and pin-striped suits for ostrich-skin boots, jeans and a big brass belt buckle. He looks people dead-on with his deeply set, pale blue eyes, and speaks in a slow Southern drawl. And then there's the plastic foam cup he carries around as a portable spittoon for his Skoal.

"I want to leave here saying this agency is one of the best," Mr. Witt says. "That was my goal when I was nominated. I want to make this the most respected agency in Washington."

Mr. Witt, 51, never attended college. He started his own construction company. He ran for county judge and won. He founded the Yell County Fire Control in Arkansas, a collection of volunteer fire departments. He became the director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services after his friend Bill Clinton became governor.

Mr. Witt is the first director of FEMA with emergency management experience. He walked into an agency that had been a disaster itself almost from the day it was founded in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter took a collection of forgotten federal departments and placed them under one roof near the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum.

For years, FEMA was racked by internal squabbling over what the agency should be doing -- responding to natural disasters or preparing Americans for nuclear war. It was a place where presidents parked political operatives who wanted a job in Washington -- any job. There were more presidential appointees on its payroll than at any other federal agency in Washington.


By the time Hurricane Hugo struck the Carolinas and the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked Northern California in 1989, FEMA was poorly prepared to respond. The agency had no director -- President George Bush didn't name one until a year later -- and the agency bungled both operations.

"The sorriest bunch of jackasses I've ever seen," Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina said during FEMA's Hugo operation.

"An agency that can screw up a two-car parade," Rep. Norman Y. Mineta, D-Calif., said during the earthquake effort.

Perhaps the agency's biggest blunder came when Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992. FEMA stuck to its stance that it wouldn't respond to disasters unless states filed formal requests for help. Florida didn't file one, and FEMA waited. It waited for nearly three days while tens of thousands of disaster victims went without water, food and ice during the steamiest, rainiest time of the year.

There were investigations, reports and congressional hearings. The consensus: The agency should take a more aggressive approach in responding to natural disasters and stop spending so much time on planning for nuclear war.

A reorganization


Mr. Witt reorganized the agency. He eliminated layers of bureaucracy and the need for endless paperwork. He met with state directors and promised a better relationship. He stood at the entrance to the agency and introduced himself to many of his 2,700 employees.

"He's taken a very positive attitude toward the workers," says Leo Bosner, a former union president at FEMA and a critic of the agency. "He has focused us on the hazards we face -- earthquakes, fires -- rather than on what we should do when the bombs start flying."

A series of natural disasters tested Mr. Witt early. Devastating wildfires swept across Southern California in October 1993. Three months later, an earthquake rocked the region. Floods ravaged the Midwest. Tornadoes touched down across the South. In his first two years, 77 major disasters were declared in the United States.

Jerry Uhlmann, director of the Missouri State Management Agency, says FEMA performed well.

"They responded very quickly," says Mr. Uhlmann. "It was a very good operation. The big difference under James Lee is, he approached things by looking at it from the state level and the local level rather than having us fill out a bunch of forms."

Within hours of the Oklahoma City bombing, a FEMA team was on the ground, assessing the damage and reporting back to Washington. That evening, Mr. Witt was standing at the foot of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, supervising rescue teams and ordering more help from around the country.


"I give him four stars," says Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md. "I think he professionalized the agency by getting rid of the political hacks. When a disaster hits, he moves in a very quick way, which is in stark contrast to the lethargic approach of his predecessors."

With his star rising in a town that loves to track trajectories, Mr. Witt is becoming the subject of speculation by political observers in Washington who wonder whether he will take a run at the House or the Senate when his stint at FEMA is over.

He says anything is possible.

"When I go home, I'm going to chew a little Skoal or whatever, put my cowboy boots on, and get on the tractor and do some work on the farm and assess what I want to do," he says. "I'll see what's available. I'm not going to rule anything out."