WASHINGTON — James Lee Witt, America’s go-to guy for disaster response, knows how to take an unpopular organization and turn it around. If BP hires the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director to help with community relations, it could further a makeover of the oil giant’s Gulf Coast image.
Last week, the company’s British CEO, Tony Hayward, stepped down from managing the day-to-day operations of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Hayward handed off the job to managing director Bob Dudley, who grew up in Mississippi.
On Friday, BP and Witt’s company were still hammering out the details of a contract. Dudley told reporters he asked Witt to go down to New Orleans with him to get some feedback on the company’s response and what it could do in the future.
“As long as they get the job done, we don’t care who they hire,” said Kyle Plotkin, spokesman for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
A Dudley-Witt duo could be harder for Gulf Coast officials to criticize. For years Witt’s consulting firm has been working with governments in that region to help with disaster planning and recovery.
“When James Lee Witt does something, people listen and respect it,” said Bev Ciglar, a public policy professor at Penn State University. “I’m very, very surprised that he has not been more involved.”
President Bill Clinton appointed Witt as FEMA director in 1993. At the time, the agency was considered one of the worst in the government after its poor responses to hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in 1989 and 1992. After Hugo thrashed South Carolina, the state’s Democratic senator, Ernest Hollings, called FEMA “the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I’ve ever worked with.”
That reputation changed under Witt, partly because of the new image he brought to the agency. In 1994, Witt made news simply by flying to the scene of a disaster the day it occurred.
Earlier this month, Witt told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the Obama administration responded to the BP oil spill quickly. “They’ve got some of the smartest minds in the business coming up with solutions, but it seems to be going at a snail’s pace,” Witt said.
One of Witt’s most valuable skills is his ability to talk about disasters, the people affected and how to help them, said George Haddow, who worked for Witt during the Clinton administration and is now a research scientist and adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Institute of Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management.
“James Lee Witt knows a lot about how you communicate about disasters,” Haddow said.
BP could use some help in that department. Officials estimate more than 100 million gallons of oil have leaked from the rig since the April 20 explosion.
The oil company executives’ gaffes have angered Americans, particularly when Hayward said, “No one wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor said he called Vice President Joe Biden’s office about a month ago to ask whether the Obama administration had reached out to Witt for assistance.
“I was mystified why he was not brought into the picture sooner, and frankly, I was frustrated about it,” Pryor said.
As president-elect, Barack Obama sought Witt’s guidance on homeland security and disaster response issues. FEMA’s reputation had suffered a relapse after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the Bush administration was slow and unprepared to respond.
James Lee Witt Associates is already working with Escambia and Okaloosa counties in Florida on their response to the BP oil spill, a company spokeswoman said.