Preparing for the Inevitable: Former FEMA Director Tackles Climate Change

FEMA/Dave Gatley
Former FEMA director James Lee Witt now consults with Louisiana and other states to improve their readiness for extreme weather induced by climate change.

James Lee Witt is the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Clinton administration (1993–2001). He is widely credited with turning FEMA from an unsuccessful bureaucratic agency to an internationally lauded, all-hazards disaster management agency. During his tenure, Witt oversaw the U.S. government’s response and recovery operations for 350 disasters, including some of the most devastating disasters of all time—the most costly flood disaster in the nation’s history, the most costly earthquake, and a dozen damaging hurricanes. Prior to his tenure at FEMA, he was emergency manager for State of Arkansas under Governor Clinton. Now in private practice as chief executive officer of Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm based in Washington DC, Witt speaks to Solutions about environmental management.

Is the U.S. facing an increase in environmental-related emergencies due to worsening weather and overdevelopment, or are we just hearing about it more often in the media?
We’re hearing more about it, but we are also seeing more incidences: floods, tornados, snow storms; it has changed drastically. The eight years I was in FEMA we had 350 presidential declarations. We’ve seen a large increase in those declarations in recent years. I’m very concerned. Last summer, we had drought in 14 states and that will affect the meat market because farmers depend on grain. These weather-related incidents are going to change a lot of the markets because costs will increase. Responding to and recovering from events is costing more. We have to look at our infrastructure, to be more resilient, because it could be devastating when disaster strikes.

What is the worst-case scenario that the U.S. is facing from climate change?
It’s really going to affect crops and the cattle industry. The drought affects all the farmers of soybean and corn and the lack of corn can affect the feed and the poultry and cattle industries. It’s a domino effect, and it will affect the entire food industry, which will affect every consumer in the country.

On this subject of crops and cattle, one of the biggest risks is going to be the change in behaviors and habitat of animals and insects. This can not only impact how people make their livings, but it can change how diseases spread, increase the chance of a large-scale outbreak and pandemic, alter the food supplies and reproduction cycles of animals, and undermine agricultural interests.

Should FEMA take a more forward-looking position in preventing climate-related disasters—that is, become more involved in cutting carbon emissions, et cetera?
I think FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture should be working together. Look at what we faced in the last three years, what we may face, and what kind of strategy we can develop to help change this and prevent tremendous losses. We also need to reintroduce the personal responsibility component of disaster reduction: how individuals, communities, and businesses can really make an impact on reducing the effect of disaster related to climate.

You’ve been involved with the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. Are there any success stories in the rebuilding?
We have been helping the State of Louisiana for the past five years in the rebuilding. The way that New Orleans is rebuilding is very important. What they’re doing to help reduce the effect of disaster in the future is elevating new homes and hardening canals. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers really did a lot of work on that.

The rebuilding is being done to hurricane strength building codes, which will help homes withstand strong winds and flooding. Louisiana adopted a statewide building code for the first time after Katrina, which ensures that reconstruction is being done in a more sustainable way. Codes like these produce long-term mitigation benefits and reduce the societal costs of disasters. Louisiana has also invested heavily in building its Emergency Management capabilities, something that we have helped them do through training of their existing staff, helping them obtain EMAP [Emergency Management Accreditation Program] accreditation, and building an effective public education program for mitigation and preparedness. The State of Louisiana is now one of the most prepared and capable states in the country and getting better all the time.

What are some actions cities and communities are taking to prevent climate related destruction?
They need to look at the risks they have in the flood-prone areas, earthquake risk areas, and high wind and wildfire areas. It goes back to when I was director of FEMA. We created Project Impact. We did a partnership with over 200 communities: they would develop a strategy to reduce their risk, and we’d provide a little seed money to the first pilot communities. In one example, in Washington State, there was a Project Impact and they had an earthquake and the next morning the mayor said we had very little damage. They attributed it to Project Impact because they had retrofitted the things they knew were at risk; they didn’t need a taxpayer bailout. In the ‘93 floods, nine states were flooded. What we did with President Clinton and the governors was put in place a buyout relocation program for all the homes in the floodplains. We bought out 4,000 pieces of property and turned them into open green space, creating jogging trails or soccer fields. In Iowa, they took that green space and planted native flowers and grass. And they saw the ecosystem come back in a few years. But moving people out of harm’s way is one of the ways to stop repetitive losses when communities get flooded over and over again.

Communities can also build to more hazard resistant standards than the minimum requirement in order to avoid higher flood levels; they can make a serious effort to promote water and energy conservation, both in community facilities and in new and existing private construction; and they can establish a rainy-day fund to help the community build reserves and pay for mitigation investments over the long-term.

How can the U.S. help developing world countries prepare for climate change? After all, they will be worst hit.
President Clinton’s global initiative has done quite a bit. They can take the lessons learned here in the U.S. and share those with other countries—help them help themselves. I’ve been to the Philippines, India, Turkey, and Indonesia after the tsunami, and a lot of the shared information and technology we know and use here would help them. We were in Haiti [after the earthquake] three times helping them with training programs in the worst-hit camps where people are still living in tents. Our team, along with the New York City Fire Department trainers who spoke the language, trained over 400 women in the camps in disaster preparedness so that they could do some disaster reduction tasks to reduce landslides during hurricane season. They did it and the Sean Penn Petionville Camp proclaimed that had they not trained their residents, there surely would have been great landslides and quite possibly deaths. The housing they’re building is made of stronger materials and stronger components and now is much safer than it was before.