When President Clinton nominated James Lee Witt as the Director of FEMA, he breathed life back into FEMA and brought a much-needed new leadership style to the troubled Agency. Witt was the first Director of FEMA with actual emergency management experience. He had come from the constituency who had played a major role in creating FEMA but had been forgotten; the State Directors. With Witt, President Clinton had given FEMA increased credibility and more importantly, a skilled politician who knew the importance of building partnerships and serving one’s customers.
Witt’s leadership and the changes he made were quickly tested, as the Nation experienced an unprecedented series of natural disasters during his years at the Agency. The Midwest Floods in 1993 resulted in major disaster declarations in nine States. These floods, and their expansive and devastating consequences, called into question the value of some of the flood control measures initiated long ago as part of the 1930’s Corps of Engineers’ legislation. FEMA’s successful response to the event, however, brought about the opportunity to change the focus of emergency management from post disaster recovery to pre-disaster mitigation. Such a shift was initiated through the creation of the largest voluntary buy out and relocation program to date, which sought simply to move people out of the floodplain and thus, out of harm’s way.
The Northridge (CA) Earthquake of 1994 quickly followed the Midwest Floods. This event tested all of FEMA’s newly streamlined approaches and their advancements in service delivery technology (and even led to the creation of new policies and technologies). The Federal response to this event was hailed as an overall success.
When President Clinton elevated Witt as Director of FEMA to be a member of his Cabinet, the value and importance of emergency management was recognized. Witt used this as an opportunity to lobby the Nation’s Governors to include their state emergency management directors in their Cabinets.
The Oklahoma City Bombing in April 1995 represented a new phase in the evolution of emergency management in the United States. This event, which followed the less destructive first bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1992, elevated the issue of the nation’s preparedness for terrorism events. As emergency management responsibilities were (and still are) defined by recognized risks and the consequences of those risks, responding to terrorist threats were included in FEMA’s domain. The Oklahoma City bombing tested this thesis and set the stage for inter-agency disagreements over which Agency would be in charge of terrorism.
The Nunn-Lugar legislation of 1995 opened the question of who would be the lead agency in terrorism. Many fault FEMA executives for not quickly claiming that leadership role. As such, the late 1990’s were marked by several different agencies and departments asserting their individual roles in terrorism planning. The question of who would be the first responder to a terrorism incident - fire, police, emergency management or emergency medical services – was closely examined without any clear answers resulting. The State Directors were looking for FEMA to claim this leadership role, but the leadership of FEMA vacillated on this issue in an uncharacteristic way. Terrorism was certainly part of the all-hazards approach to emergency management championed by FEMA, but the resources and technologies needed to address specific issues such as a chemical, biological, and other weapons of mass destruction events seemed well beyond the reach of the current emergency management structure.
While this debate continued, FEMA took an important step in its commitment to disaster mitigation by launching a national initiative to promote a new community-based approach called Project Impact. Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities was designed to mainstream emergency management and mitigation practices into every American community. The project sought to reach back to the roots of emergency management, asking communities to identify their risks and establish plans to reduce those risks. It tasked communities with establishing partnerships that would include all the communities’ stakeholders including, for the first time, the business sector.
The ultimate goal of the Project Impact concept was to incorporate decisions about risk and risk avoidance into the community’s everyday decision-making processes. By building a disaster resistant community, the community would promote sustainable economic development, protect and enhance its natural resources, and ensure a better quality of life for its citizens. Project Impact had ambitious goals and was well received by the communities and by Congress. It was designed to create a broader constituency - a grass roots campaign - for emergency management issues.
As the decade ended, absent of any of the predicted major technological glitches expected from the well-publicized ‘Y2K bug’, FEMA was recognized as the preeminent emergency management system in the world. It was emulated in several countries throughout the world, and Witt became America’s Ambassador for emergency management overseas.
Hurricane Mitch, which devastated many areas in Central America and the Caribbean, brought about a change in American foreign policy towards promoting and supporting community-based mitigation projects. State and local emergency management programs had grown and their value was recognized and supported by society. Private sector and business continuity programs were flourishing.
The role and responsibility and the partnerships supporting emergency management had significantly increased, and its budget and stature had grown significantly. Sound emergency management practice became integral to both economic and environmental issues; it became a staple of discussion relative to a community’s quality of life.
The profession of emergency management was attracting a different type of individual. Political and management skills were recognized as critical to the position, and candidates for State, local and private emergency management positions were now being judged on their training and experience rather than their relationship to the community’s political leadership.
Undergraduate and advance degree programs in emergency management were flourishing at over 65 national colleges and universities. The profession had become well-respected and challenging, and was quickly becoming competitive for prospective employees.