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James Lee Witt on Natural Disasters
As the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton, James Lee Witt has seen his share of natural disasters. He oversaw the recovery for more than 350 disasters, and he shared many of his experiences in his book, Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph. Currently, Witt is the chairman and chief executive officer of James Lee Witt Associates, a GlobalOptions Group crisis management and preparedness services consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. He is also the special advisor to the state of Louisiana to assist in the long-term recovery after Hurricane Katrina and Rita. In this interview, Witt shares what he has learned from more than 25 years of disaster management experience.
This country has now seen its share of devastating natural disasters, between Hurricane Katrina and the recent flooding in the Midwest. Are people more or less prepared as a result of these incidents?
Recent surveys have shown that the level of preparedness has not really increased among our citizens. In fact, a 2007 survey showed that nearly 30% of all citizens have taken no action towards preparedness and only 4% have taken all the recommended actions. With that said, I’d like to remind individuals, as well as communities and businesses that disasters strike everywhere at anytime. In fact we should assess our most likely disaster, which is most likely power outages and house fires. Planning for these types of disasters is one of the easiest and simplest things communities can do to prevent damage and loss of lives. If you plan for these types of disasters, you can respond to almost any type of emergency and if it does strike, your recovery can be quicker.
You've seen a number of disasters as the head of FEMA. What was the one thing that made the difference between someone's survival and total devastation?
I don’t know that there is one thing that can make the difference between survival and total devastation, but certainly having a plan, knowing what to do when an incident strikes and if you can, take some type of mitigation efforts to minimize the impact when you do have disaster.
While there are different levels of preparedness, I think about the town of Pattonsburg, MO, located at the confluence of Big Creek and the Grand River. This town had flooded 33 times in its history, and once again in 1993 when I was FEMA director. The Grand River overflowed its banks, once again flooding the community. While this may seem extreme, the town came together and decided that enough was enough. After receiving $12 million in federal disaster assistance, the community relocated itself to higher ground. There are certainly much simpler and less costly ways to minimize the impact of disasters, and I hope that people who have been impacted more than a few times would explore with their communities other possible options.
You're currently advising the state of Louisiana in the recovery after Hurricane Katrina. What have you learned in the recovery there that people should apply to any future disasters?
What has always amazed me during times of natural disaster is the outpouring of support. Citizens from all around the country poured into Louisiana and Mississippi, as they continue to do today, to assist the states in rebuilding. The American spirit never ceases to amaze me in these situations, and non-profits, as well as corporations continue to help in the recovery effort in that region.
We cannot forget about individual preparedness. Unfortunately, we learned that people need to be capable of sustaining themselves and their families for three to seven days following a disaster. This can be done by taking even some of the simplest steps, like having enough non-perishable foods and bottled water.
What do people forget to do in the immediate aftermath of a disaster?
I think one big thing people forget to do in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is how to survive in the first 72 hours until the government can get assistance to you. People see massive destruction and start thinking big picture—to get everything back just as it was as fast as possible. But sometimes you need to think about what we need to do today as individuals, whether it is how will you feed your family, how will you take care of yourself, how will you keep your cell phone charged, or provide shelter or evacuation for yourself and your family.
What are five pieces of advice you would give to someone who is preparing for or recovering from a natural disaster?
1. Have a preparedness plan.
2. Have a preparedness kit.
3. Practice your preparedness plan (and practice with your family).
4. Develop a communication plan. How do you get in touch with your family and colleagues during a disaster? Sometimes having someone outside the area be your contact might be most effective.
5. If you do get hit by disaster, when you rebuild, build back stronger and if you haven’t been hit by disaster, assess what your risks are and how you might be able to mitigate against disaster.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
In my book, Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph, I detail this experience, but I’ll try to put it in a nutshell here.
Growing up in Arkansas, I had seen my father and mother survive not just the expected hardships of farm life, which included the usual drought-failed crops but also the tornado that turned our house on its foundation when I was five; and the fire that destroyed everything we had when I was fifteen. Despite all that I saw my parents fight their way through all the bad times, and some pretty dicey moments I have endured myself, I have come to believe that you need uncommon common sense. Uncommon common sense is nothing more than a bone-deep faith in your ability to cope in a bad situation—faith that you can decide what to do, you can figure out how to do it, you can pick up the pieces of your life and go on. It is frightening the first time you have to tap into that confidence at your core. But the more you’re tested, the more you can rely on your experience at tapping into it. You don’t have to be afraid that it’ll fail you. Whatever it is inside us that instills, facilitates, and conveys such confidence, the truth about it is this: It grows, like bark, with every trial you face.
The best thing about change is...
…there is an opportunity within change. While I was at FEMA, I had a sign with the Chinese characters for crisis—it meant danger and opportunity. Opportunity is ever present in a crisis or during times of change. No matter how difficult, no matter how dangerous at the heart of each crisis lies a tremendous opportunity. Great blessings await those who know the secret of finding opportunity in the midst of crisis.
What is the best change you have ever made?
The best change I ever made was my career change from construction to director of FEMA. While I enjoyed construction, I feel that my career at FEMA was rewarding in the sense we were able to help people that had suffered so much, to give them hope that things would be OK. That was so fulfilling for me.
For more information on James Lee Witt, visit www.wittassociates.com.