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Stephen Barr: FEMA's Transformation Under Bill Clinton

... [T]here's little dispute that President Bill Clinton got it right when he named James Lee Witt as the FEMA Director in 1993. As amazing as it sounds, Witt was the first FEMA head who came to the position with direct experience in emergency management, having previously served as the Director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services for four years.

Witt was among the many Arkansas friends and associates of Clinton who accompanied the President to Washington during his first , term. At the start, however, Witt seemed among the least likely to become a major player in the Administration.

FEMA haq been labeled a "political dumping ground" in one Congressional report, and Senator Ernest F. Hollings, a Democrat from South Carolina, had called the agency "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses" he had ever known.

The public and press also held FEMA in low regard, primarily because of how the agency had handled two big hurricanes. In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck near Charleston, South Carolina, and quickly and violently moved through the center of the state. Thousands of people were left homeless, and disaster-stricken communities found FEMA to be slow and incompetent. Hugo was followed in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, which flattened the region south of Miami, Florida. Again, FEMA seemed ineffective. In Washington, the common joke was that every storm brought two disasters: one when the hurricane arrived and the second when FEMA arrived.

After his Senate confirmation, Witt began by paying attention to the morale of his employees. His first morning on the job, he stood in the lobby of FEMA headquarters greeting employees as they caine to work. He asked senior career executives at FEMA to rotate jobs, providing fresh perspectives on what the agency did.

On Witt's recommendation, Clinton filled most of the FEMA jobs reserved for political appointees with persons who had previous experience in natural disasters and intergovernmental relations.

Just as importantly, Witt pulled together his staff and directed them to develop the agency's first new mission statement in a decade. For many employees, it was the first time they had seen FEMA clearly layout its organizational goals....

[As a result of the changes Witt made in FEMA, the time it took to get checks to victims was reduced from 30 days to 7. In 1996 Clinton, recognizing FEMA's importance and Witt's reforms, made FEMA a cabinet-level department. FEMA received high marks after the great flood of 1993 and the earthquake that struck Los Angeles in 1994.]