James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Clinton administration, has been named as the leader of Rebuild North Bay, a nonprofit organization formed to coordinate wildfire recovery in the region.
Witt, who responded to nearly 350 disasters in 50 states during his eight years at FEMA, will work on the initial rebuilding and recovery effort and develop long-term plans for disaster preparedness. He is widely regarded as having transformed FEMA during his tenure from a lackluster bureaucracy to an effective disaster management agency.
Witt, 73, said he was tapped for the job as interim executive director of Rebuild North Bay by its founder, Darius Anderson, the Sonoma developer and Sacramento lobbyist who is managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
Other members of the organization include former director of the Sonoma Land Trust Ralph Benson and Sonoma State University Dean of the School of Business and Economics Bill Silver.
Witt will be introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, at a news conference at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Student Center at Sonoma State attended by public officials from around fire-stricken region.
An Arkansas native and longtime acquaintance of former President Bill Clinton, Witt arrived in Sonoma County Tuesday and toured some devastated areas, including Coffey Park and Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa and parts of Sonoma Valley.
“Its really sad,” he said. “People work all their life for what they have and it’s gone in a matter of minutes. You want to do everything you can to help them.”
In three decades of work at FEMA and his own consulting firm, Witt has dealt with massive disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast and the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, one of the deadliest disasters in history.
Based at an office in Little Rock, Ark., Witt said he is now building a company involved in obtaining bridge loans for major infrastructure projects in the United States.
With the North Bay organization, Witt said he will meet with state and local officials, community leaders and government agencies, including FEMA and the California Office of Emergency Services, “to see how we can maximize federal, state and private dollars to help them build back better together.”
The goal will be to form a public-private partnership for rebuilding, and to develop plans to make the region “more resilient” to future wildfires, he said.
His proposal to Rebuild North Bay’s principals will include an hourly wage that Witt said would be comparable to top federal jobs.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.