It didn’t take long for James Lee Witt, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to throw his weight around in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana.
Witt, who headed FEMA during the Clinton administration, has been hired by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) to help coordinate state and federal responses to the natural disaster.
Blanco introduced Witt to President Bush on Monday, according to a source who has spoken with Witt. Bush promised Witt whatever support he needed and said that Mike Brown, FEMA’s embattled director, is his man in charge.
Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff, called Witt to give him his home phone number and reiterate Bush’s support.
According to the source, Witt told Brown, “Mike, you’re going to do your job, and I’m going to make you do your job. And I’m going to show you how to do your job.”
Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pleased that Witt, who contributed thousands of dollars to congressional Democrats last year, is involved in the disaster-relief effort.
Over the past several years, GOP lawmakers have sought Witt’s counsel, including Reps. Bill Shuster (Pa.), Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Jerry Lewis (Calif.).
“James Lee Witt was an outstanding director of FEMA and is a good choice by the governor, regardless of the activities of FEMA,” said former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who is now a top lobbyist.
Witt met with Shuster and Shays earlier this summer to discuss the fallout of removing FEMA’s emergency-preparedness function from its mission.
As fires raged in his congressional district in 2003, Lewis — who had chaired the appropriations subcommittee that funds FEMA when Witt was FEMA’s chief — became frustrated with the agency because it did not respond to the disaster as quickly as it should have, said Lewis spokesman Jim Specht.
“[Lewis’s] biggest concern was that FEMA hadn’t been able to come up with a plan” to prepare for a disaster, Specht added.
Lewis relied on Witt to help cajole FEMA’s bureaucracy to plan for what could have become a federal disaster area. Lewis and Brown eventually toured the vicinity in a helicopter.
After a week of mixed signals and non-communication, state and federal officials began holding joint press conferences, set up a joint command structure, worked to restore cell-phone coverage to the area and prepared to restore electrical power in New Orleans by stationing an additional 1,000 firefighters in case there were fires when the power came on.
For the first 45 to 60 days, Witt is working on a pro-bono basis for the state of Louisiana. After that, a contract will be negotiated, said a spokeswoman for Witt.
The spokeswoman added, “Witt is going to be the Bush administration’s knight in shining armor.”
“FEMA has never been without criticism, but it was once much more nimble, as it needs to be, and now is apparently becoming a responsive afterthought,” said former Rep. Ken Bentsen (D-Texas), who often dealt with FEMA when tropical storms and hurricanes flooded Houston and who credited Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s first FEMA director, for responding effectively to Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.
“Congress should look into this quickly and employ some management expertise to boot,” Bentsen said.
Witt left the government in 2001 to start his own consulting and lobbying shop.