James Lee Witt, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has witnessed the aftermath of plenty of disasters. Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, he’s been through them all. But he says he’s never seen any fires like those that have laid waste to Santa Rosa and much of the surrounding area.
The only thing comparable, he said, was the Cerro Grande fire that swept through Los Alamos, New Mexico in 2000 and took out part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Because that blaze started with a backfire set by the U.S. Forest Service, the federal government quickly took responsibility and doled out $250 million in compensation. Witt’s agency helped to disseminate information, handled damage claims and tried to help victims remember what they lost. “That was kind of like this fire,” he said. “Those people didn’t have a chance to get anything. No paperwork, no nothing.”
But there was one major difference. That fire consumed 400 homes. This one consumed roughly 17 times that many — an estimated 6,800. “The magnitude of this one is just huge,” Witt said during a meeting with The Press Democrat Editorial Board Wednesday.
The magnitude of the recovery also will be huge, which underscores the importance of having someone like Witt at the helm to help Sonoma Country navigate the rough seas ahead.
Witt, who oversaw FEMA during the Clinton administration from 1993 to 2001, has been named to head Rebuild North Bay, a regional organization that will seek to bring together the public and private sectors to help the region recover and rebuild. Rebuild North Bay is the creation of Darius Anderson, a Sonoma-based lobbyist who is the managing partner of Sonoma Media Investments, owner of The Press Democrat.
Witt says he will work with state and federal emergency officials, as well as local leaders, to identify the “voids” that exist, voids such as gaps in information, leadership and in insurance coverage and other funding. He brings to the job the experience and credentials to get it done. He knows how to work with federal agencies, ranging from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Small Business Administration to the National Institute of Sciences, which can help in the development of more fire-safe building materials.
Witt says he will be developing a strategy to ensure that local communities can take full advantage of what federal assistance is available and to ensure that rebuilding occurs in the safest way possible. While Witt has seen plenty of examples of where recoveries have gone smoothly, he’s also seen where they haven’t. The biggest differences, he said, are personalities and infighting.
How this is all going to come together is unclear. But what is evident is that if the recovery is going to succeed, and if Rebuild North Bay itself is going to succeed, it will depend on many people working together for the betterment of the region — not for the adulation of individual accomplishments.
“It’s not about one individual,” Witt said at a meeting of some 250 community leaders at Sonoma State University on Wednesday. “It’s about everyone, and it’s about bringing people together — helping neighbors and helping each other.”
We know who the heroes of these fires are, and they have already started to head home. What we need now is everyone else — working to help rebuild this place we call home. At least we will have the help of someone who has been there before.