BP hires James Lee Witt, former FEMA director, to help coastal communities in wake of oil spill


BILOXI, Miss. — While introducing a new leader in Gulf Coast restoration efforts, incoming BP PLC CEO Bob Dudley plans to fly to Mobile today to meet with Gov. Bob Riley and discuss the company’s oil spill claims process.

Dudley acknowledged trouble with the process, saying that the company was faced with a “lack of competency” when it took over claims.

That’s part of the reason Ken Feinberg was asked to take over oil spill compensations.

“What we did we had to do very quickly,” Dudley said. “It’s not been perfect.”

Dudley said that the company will sell off $25 billion to $30 billion worth of assets, pointing to that as “a really huge symbol of BPs commitment” to the area.

A former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency will lead BP Plc’s “long-term” restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast, the company’s incoming CEO announced this morning.

“I’ve seen the anguish and the pain that people have suffered after disaster events. I’ve seen the frustration,” James Lee Witt, CEO of Witt Associates, a disaster consulting firm. “I have seen communities come back stronger and better than ever before.”

In introducing Witt, Bob Dudley, who is expected to take over as BP’s CEO for the outgoing Tony Hayward in October, addressed the ongoing effects of the Deepwater Horizon well leak.

“For the oil and gas industry, this is a real wake-up call for change in terms of safety,” Dudley said at a news conference. “You also have to say that this is an opportunity to change for the better.”

Witt did not say how long restoration would take, but that “it’s going to be really really critical that we get this right. … Our hope is that we can do it as fast as we can as good as we can.”

Dudley, who spent part of his childhood in Hattiesburg, said that “even at the point the oil stops flowing, the commitment remains by BP to stay here along the communities of the Gulf Coast to make good to restore the Gulf Coast.”

Witt was appointed FEMA director by President Clinton and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in April 1993. In February 1996, President Clinton elevated Witt to cabinet status, a first for a FEMA director.

Witt has been serving as BP’s community relations leader in New Orleans. He also has been a special adviser to the state of Louisiana, assisting with the long-term recovery effort in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

With oil no longer spilling from the site of the April 20 explosion, Dudley said BP would start to pull back some of its cleanup crews in the Gulf and along the beaches.

“It’s not too soon for a scale back,” Dudley said, adding that “you probably don’t need to see people walking up and down the beaches in hazmat suits.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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