Magazine article Risk Management

Q & A: James Lee Witt

Magazine article Risk Management

Q & A: James Lee Witt

Article excerpt

Former Director of FEMA & Chief Executive Officer of James Lee Witt Associates

Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and terrorist attacks. For most, these are unthinkable tragedies. For James Lee Witt, they are his life's work.

As FHMA director under President Clinton. Witt stood at the apex of his profession and it was under his watch that the organisation was transformed from an unsuccessful bureaucratic agency to a global icon of disaster preparedness and emergency management.

For the past quarter century, his typical day at the office has been not been typical at all. With the disasters in China and Burma still fresh on everyone's mind, Win sat down to talk with Risk Management about the aftermath of those tragedies, his role in the 2005 South Asian tsunami response, his days at FEMA, the current state of the agency and why businesses must remain vigilant to all types of disasters.

The scale of the tragedies in China and Burma is difficult to imagine. You have been advising many high-level people involved in the China response. What were the immediate concerns in the earthquake's aftermath?

They have a catastrophic event on their hands. I [spoke] with the ambassador of China, and we have been advising her and putting some information together for them.

The biggest thing in the response itself is finding the victims that are still alive. Relief and taking care of individual needs comes first, [then comes] finding temporary sheltering and such.

The biggest need is tents. They have five million people homeless along with 50,000 deceased and another 29,000 still missing. One of the things I suggested was using the cargo containers they have in their ports. They can convert those into shelters for people much faster than tents. That would be the fastest and most economical way to at least give [people] some shelter.

Are cargo crates often used after a disaster?

The first time I saw it used this way was when I was in Japan after the [1995] Kobe earthquake. They would take them, stack them and convert them to housing for the workers. It worked extremely well.

It doesn't seem much different from the FEMA trailers used after Hurricane Katrina.

Exactly. They work really well. You can make them into communications centers, clinics, offices and housing.

What other advice did you offer?

I advised them to begin looking at long-term redevelopment and reconstruction. Sometimes it's difficult when you're in a response to think ahead, but hopefully that's what they are doing. You need to get that plan developed. We're trying to help as best we can. We just want to do anything they ask and we're doing it all pro bono.

China has a long history of natural disasters. In your estimation, how prepared was the Chinese government to handle this?

In responding to this, I think they've done a really good job. It's just that it's massive. You're talking about five million people. Just like the tsunami in Asia, this is massive. Burma is the same way.

It's going to take some time. It's going to be very hard for those folks who lost everything, particularly for those who lost loved ones. Some families lost kids, parents, grandparents. It's a difficult time. I just hope everyone will step up and do what they can to help.

Did you advise anyone in Burma as well?

I did talk to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Relief. It's very difficult to get in to help the way you need to. One organization that was already in the country, Save The Children, is doing an unbelievable amount of good work. They had 32 offices and 500 people already there, so they were immediately on the ground and very effective.

I hope a lot of countries will look at these recent events, because we need to take them seriously. We need to learn from them. And we need to build better and safer communities.

You were also actively involved in reconstruction after the tsunami a few years ago. …

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