A Natural at Disaster

updated 01/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

HIS EYELIDS ARE AS HEAVY AS HIS Arkansas drawl, but somehow James Lee Witt manages to stay-awake. Touring Los Angeles the day after the earthquake, Will, 50, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, slops frequently to console victims and reassure them that help is on the way. Yet after too many briefings and too little sleep, the toll begins to show in his face. "I knew I was in for a tremendous challenge when I look this job," jokes Witt. "But I didn't think it would be this big of a challenge."

Indeed, a headlong pace has become Witt's standard operating mode ever since President Clinton named him to oversee FEMA last year. In rapid succession he has had lo confront the massive Mississippi River floods that ravaged the Midwest last summer and the brush fires that blackened nearly 200,000 acres in Southern California last fall. Nonetheless, by almost universal consensus, Witt has performed impressively, helping to restore the reputation of FEMA, which was widely attacked for its sluggish response to hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Andrew in 1992. "Wilt is doing a fantastic job," says Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who had been one of the agency's harshest critics. "The President got the right person at the right time to do the right job."

Will and his wife of 32 years, Lea, 50, have taken an apartment in Alexandria, Va., but still maintain a 200-acre farm in Wild Cat Hollow, Ark. (pop. 10—when the Witts are in town). Their two sons, Jimmy, 28, and Michael, 26, live in Dardanelle, Ark., Witt's hometown, where their father once operated his own construction company after graduating from high school. (He never went to college.) In 1978, when Witt was 34, local Democrats asked him to run for the office of Yell County judge, an administrative post that includes emergency management. He won—and immediately got his first lest. On the day Witt was sworn in, heavy snowstorms hit the county, clogging roads and hamstringing services for weeks. Taking the lead on the cleanup, Witt at times ran graders and bulldozers himself.

In 1988, then-Governor Clinton appointed Witt to head the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services; by the time he left office four years later, he had handled 34 tornadoes, snowstorms and floods. That background came in handy last year when Witt tackled the Mississippi River floods. "He made us feel like we were the only city in the world," says Des Moines Mayor John Pal Dorrian. "That's a real talent. He never mentioned his obligations in other areas."

Witt has also brought a distinctly down-home spirit to FEMA. Coming to Washington last year after living virtually his entire life in Yell County, he was shocked by the prices for real estate. "He thought he could find a place for a couple of hundred dollars a month," says R.D. Ross, a friend and consultant with the Natural Disaster Coalition. Witt sometimes refuses the government jets at his disposal, opting instead to use commercial airlines for his official business. In a now-famous incident, Witt at one point during the Midwest floods missed a connection and wound up taking a three-hour bus ride to a disaster scene.

Now Witt wants to shift FEMA's traditional emphasis from civil defense and planning for nuclear war to preparation for natural disasters. "Each disaster is a little bit different," says Witt. "The basic needs and responses are pretty much the same, but sometimes you gel a little extra time to work because you know it's coming."

BILL HEWITT
JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles, NINA BURLEIGH in Chicago, and bureau reports

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