James Lee Witt to the Rescue – Again

Count us among Americans who yearn for the days, not so long ago, when James Lee Witt was the man our country turned to handle operations on the ground in times of crisis.

Consider this: Of all the scandals trumped up by the Republicans during the Clinton era, not one was related to the 348 disasters handled by James Lee Witt when he was head of FEMA.

Witt served as served as FEMA director in the Clinton Administration, and handled 348 national crises with extreme competence.

Consider this: Of all the scandals trumped up by the Republicans during the Clinton era, not one was related to how those 348 disasters were handled.

Yesterday, after he was named as Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s liaison with FEMA, Witt was interviewed live by Rita Cosby on MSNBC. The full transcript follows, but here are the salient points:

I‘ve talked to emergency managers across this country, and firefighters across this country, and they told me … “You know what,” they said, “what [the Bush Administration has] done to FEMA is like driving [a stake in the] heart in emergency management in this country.”

[You] cannot expect a federal agency, like FEMA, to be able to fulfill its role and its responsibility to the American people [when] you take away the resources and … a lot of the funding. [You] have to work every day, every month, every week, to be able to make sure you partner with state and local emergency management, firefighters, to be able to respond together.

And if you don‘t plan, prepare, and exercise together, then you – it‘s difficult to respond together.

The mitigation prevention program in FEMA was a strong program. When we reorganized FEMA, we put in a division for mitigation prevention, working with state and local government, to minimize risk. It is almost null and void now…

While it is a hopeful sign that Witt is handling the situation for the state Louisiana, his presence on the scene is a constant reminder of how inadequate the federal team has been in fulfilling it’s responsibilities. We can only hope that they are able to turn the situation in the Gulf Coast around before there is another major disaster.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

RITA COSBY: [The] former director of FEMA, James Lee Witt, is becoming a new figure back on the scene. You know, you had a tough job when you were head of FEMA; now here you are being recruited again. The governor of Louisiana asked you to step in. What did she ask you to do?

JAMES LEE WITT, FORMER DIRECTOR, FEMA: Governor Blanco called me and asked me would I come down and offer them some help because of my experience in the past with dealing with this kind of situation, and so we‘re advising her in what she needs to do and what they need to do in Louisiana, by start planning, not only in the response but also to start planning to put some temporary housing in place, the long-term reconstruction, which is…

(split screen): … going to be critical.

COSBY (voice-over): When did you get the call, and when did you actually get involved? I‘m sure you were watching the hurricane anyway.

WITT: I was. I watched every station every day as I could. We got the call on a Thursday, and I flew down on Friday.

COSBY: And where – your role is essentially going to be a liaison, right, between —

WITT: Senior advisor to Governor Blanco.

COSBY: And also advising the head of FEMA, the current head of FEMA right now, Mike Brown?

WITT: I haven‘t seen Mike Brown. I haven‘t talked to him yet.

COSBY: How do you see your role playing? Do you see her saying essentially that maybe there‘s some issues with the current director of FEMA?

WITT: Well, you know, I don‘t have any issues with Mike Brown, I don‘t have any issues with FEMA, you know. I think FEMA‘s good employees are working their hearts out down here; I think they‘re trying their very best to do a good job.

I think that – you know, and I‘ve said this before, I said it in Congress, when I testified last year, the concern I had about taking FEMA apart and putting it under Homeland Security, taking it away from being an independent agency, reporting directly to the president.
And I said, you know, I‘ve talked to emergency managers across this country, and firefighters across this country, and they told me – this is what I testified to Congress about – and they told me, they said, “You know what,” they said, “what they have done to FEMA is like driving the heart (ph) in emergency management in this country.”

And, you know, you cannot – you cannot expect a federal agency, like FEMA, to be able to fulfill its role and its responsibility to the American people and you take away the resources and you take away a lot of the funding, for them to be able to do their job, and you have to work every day, every month, every week, to be able to make sure you partner with state and local emergency management, firefighters, to be able to respond together.
And if you don‘t plan, prepare, and exercise together, then you – it‘s difficult to respond together.

COSBY: Do you think that‘s what happened in this case, that there was no sort of cohesive planning? I mean, look, the city didn‘t even evacuate until it was a little too late. Do you think there‘s – there‘s certainly shared blame, I would think, to go around.

WITT: You know, you could point the finger at anybody and everybody.

COSBY: So what would you say to those frustrated…

WITT: Now is not the time –

COSBY: … people? What would you say to all those angry and frustrated…

WITT: Well, you know…

COSBY: … who now have no home?

WITT: Well, you know, I don‘t think FEMA or the governor or the president or anybody else could have stopped this hurricane, OK? I wished we had something to stop these hurricanes, or anything else.

But I think that the most important thing we can do is that we make sure that we have a federal agency that can respond to situations like this, to make sure people are OK.

And I want to tell you something else. The mitigation prevention program in FEMA was a strong program. When we reorganized FEMA, we put in a division for mitigation prevention, working with state and local government, to minimize risk.
It is almost null and void now. You know, you cannot – you cannot just let every day go by and not think about, plan, and plan for these type of scenarios.

COSBY: We talked to – there‘s a Louisiana State University professor who said he gave information not just to FEMA: the White House, a number of other individuals, and said, “I predicted exactly this. I foresaw these two doomsday scenarios as “perfect storm.”

WITT: This was our worst nightmare when I was director of FEMA.

COSBY: But do you believe that some turned a blind eye?

WITT: I don‘t – I‘m not going to say somebody turned a blind eye. I don‘t think the state did; I don‘t think the mayor did. I think they worked very hard, as fast as they could, to do what they had to do, and…

COSBY: But should they have listened to people like this LSU professor and others?

WITT: Well, you know, maybe – I think – I think that – you have to remember this, too: Governor Blanco – the National Guard, that had been planning, training, and exercised for this kind of scenario. 5,000 of her Guard are in Iraq, OK? You know. And so they had a lot of resources depleted.
But they were able to be able to respond, and they‘ve done a good job. But you know what, you could point the fingers at everything. Was there anyone listening? I think so.

I know the state was listening. I know the city of New Orleans was listening, and I know they planned and trained and exercised with us when we did it. And I think FEMA had an exercise last year.

You know, I don‘t know what their critique of the exercise was, because I‘m not there.

COSBY: Finally, you just came back from touring the site. You saw some of the hardest-hit areas.

WITT: Yes.

COSBY: What was that like for you?

WITT: Well, Rita, you know, I‘ve seen a lot of disasters. You know, I was in the Oklahoma City bombing, and that was just really – it just really broke my heart. It always does.

Because, you know, I care deeply about people, and I think, you know, all of us do, and when you see something like this, it does break your heart.
And I saw and visited with a lot of people that I used to work with, like the emergency management director down in St. Bernard Parish, the fire chief down there. You know, he hugged my neck, and we just shared some tears together, you know.

These guys and women are just – you know, they‘re trying to save their town, and they‘re trying to help their people. And we took a list of a lot of things they needed, and when we got back here, Colonel Smith and the adjutant general and FEMA, we all sat down together and said, you know, “Here is what we‘ve got to do right now for St. Bernard Parish.”

We were in Jefferson Parish last night, talking to Mr. Broussard. I had a great visit with him, you know, and he said, “This is what I want to do, and this is how I want to do it.” So we came back here last night, we sat down, and we put that in motion for him.

COSBY: It‘s going to be a long time, though, for those areas.

WITT (on camera): Well, you know, the problem you‘ve got is that there‘s an awful lot of contamination out there, you know, and EPA and everybody else is going to have go in there, and they‘re going to have to start doing some testing, air quality monitoring, they‘re going to have – you‘re going to have mold, you‘ll have contamination, that some buildings may not make it.

COSBY: How long do you think it will be until people get back into New Orleans?

WITT: You know, I don‘t know.

COSBY: Until life gets back to normal.

WITT: I think the most important thing now that people – you know, most of the people are out of there, there‘s still a few stragglers in there that, you know, probably won‘t want to leave.

I think that the first thing is the Corps of Engineers working hard to fix those levees. The next thing is to get that water out of there, you know, so that you can get in there and you can really assess, you know, how much contamination you‘ve got, what else needs to be done.
I think it would be – and I told the governor this. I think that they need to notify the National Historic Preservation organization, they need to get a historic preservation team in here so that they can go in there and see, because New Orleans is a wonderful city, and, you know, New Orleans will be rebuilt, and it will still be a great city.

So there‘s hope, and I was – we was flying back from St. Bernard Parish today, and I was pretty depressed after seeing my friends, you know, and I looked out the window, and here flew an eagle. You know what? There‘s hope.

And the people that‘s been affected so much, they‘re in our prayers and our thoughts, and I‘ll guarantee you, they‘re going to have the best help that they can get.

COSBY: Thank you. James Lee Witt.

WITT: Thank you.

COSBY: It‘s good to see you back onboard too.

WITT: You too.

COSBY (on camera): You were doing a great job when you were with the administration. Thanks so much.

WITT: Thank you.

6 Comments

  • September 5, 2005 - 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I find it pretty amazing what’s being accomplished now that Witt is in charge. It shows what a real leader can do….

  • Dianne
    September 6, 2005 - 5:33 am | Permalink

    Oh, what a difference a President can make! President Clinton brought James Lee Witt from Arkansas to Washington, D.C. to Direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency of the United States of America. As in that capacity Director Witt established the highest functioning vertically coordinated (federal, state, local governments and personnel) disaster mitigation program in the nation’s history referred to as Impact Plans.

    Among all of the assinine and arrogant acts of the next Administration it destroyed, left unfunded, or shelved all of the work and achievements made by the previous Administration including FEMA’s detailed, fine tuned, and read emergency disaster mitigation program, including the Impact Plans.

    So when you all go to vote in 2008 maybe this time you will come to the ballot box more informed about your government, your nation, and who would make the best decisions as President of the United States of America.

    God Bless James Lee Witt, the great Mayor of the City of New Orleans, and Governor Blanco and the great people of New Orleans, Biloxi, and the rest of the areas that happened to be in the path of Hurricane Katrina.

    No photo ops by the current Administration can ever, ever, erase by spin or otherwise this greatest loss of life due to the ‘compassionate conservatism’ President and Administration. Oh, that’s right, they only care about life if it is an unborn fetus in a women’s womb. They just let all of these sick and/or elderly folks, children and babies drowned to death in filthy, feces filled Gulf water. Never forget. and Never Again.

  • September 6, 2005 - 5:38 am | Permalink

    Remember the great flooding of the Missouri river in 93. FEMA was on the ground preparing as soon as the water started to rise.

  • September 6, 2005 - 8:16 am | Permalink

    Atlas shrugged big-time last week. Imagine if a Category 4 storm had been heading for the coast of Florida 10 days ago—would Jeb Bush have had trouble getting the federal government in to help?

  • julie foster
    September 6, 2005 - 9:31 am | Permalink

    DearHeart Rita~~~Thanks for having James Witt on your show. It’s vitally important to get this information OUT — that under Clinton, FEMA was a MODEL agency, and that Bush & Co. ruined it! Americans desperately need to know the truth of how this administration has dismantled countless programs for the good of the people, and only favored the Rich! Bush & Co. should all be impeached, but with the IronGrip hold of both the Supreme Court, Congress and the Senate, it won’t happen! Please get the truth out that Bush slashed 44% of the funds going toward fixing the levees. Also that there was a ship stationed outside New Oreleans with medical equipment, water, and enormous ability to help rescue people. It wasn’t used! Why? Rita, please read Truthout.com, and get the real truth! The photo op of Bush’s first visit to the victims was all Fake, according to a German journalist, who witnessed the staging of the event….a fake food distribution center sign and 4 of the victims….the fake props were torn down after the photo op! This has been his m.o. always, lying, fooling, deceiving, faking compassion…They – the guys in charge of the WhiteHouse have zero conscience. They wish to destroy the UN, all treaties that benefit the world’s peoples, ruin public education, revoke basic civil rights…they hate the government and wish to weaken it, as verified by their actions! We are bankrupt – what happens when China asks to be repaid for carrying us? Please, please have the courage to find the truth and reveal it, which is probably impossible working for the Corporate media…Hopefully, this horrid tragedy will wake up and empower millions to seek the truth of what has happened to our beloved country! julie-hawaii

  • Barbara Bearden
    September 6, 2005 - 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank God for James Lee Witt, what progress has been made since he came aboard. Thank goodness this Governor had the forthought to engage him. Barb Fort Smith, Arkansas

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