Sep 21, 2018
by Will Carruthers
With more and more climate change-fueled natural disasters battering communities around the world, discussions about humans’ ability to resist and recover from disasters have become increasingly urgent in business and government circles.
Now, two men involved with the North Bay’s fire recovery may be positioned to influence how communities across the country prepare for natural disasters. Both men have disaster response experience and national connections at organizations focused on educating, redesigning and rebuilding communities in order to withstand the next disaster.
On Friday, Sept. 14, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore and former-Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt addressed attendees of theGlobal Climate Action Summit about the lessons they have learned from working on disaster recovery and offered suggestions for the path forward.
“Last year we were hit right in the face by not just a fire, but let’s be real, a catastrophic climate event,” Gore said in an opening speech. “A fire that moved so fast that a similar fire back in the ‘40s took three days to travel the distance this fire traveled in six hours.”
In addition to his elected role in Sonoma County, Gore serves as the chair of the Resilient Counties Advisory Board for the National Association of Counties, a membership organization for county governments partly sponsored by businesses, and the California State Association of Counties, a similar state-level organization.
Gore said that his positions on the resilience boards allow him to “take a vision of what we’re doing locally and try to expose it and take it national.”
“What we’re all about is not just coming back to where we were before those fires but coming back stronger and more resilient. Ready to go,” Gore said.
In a speech at the same climate resilience event, former FEMA director James Lee Witt announced plans to start a program to enhance the disaster readiness of American cities through cooperation between businesses and governments, a practice known as a public-private partnership.
After leaving government, Witt founded a lobbying and disaster advisory company, Witt Global Partners. Witt has since advised government and corporate leaders around the world and once helped the CEO of BP through a “sea of discontent and distrust” in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a biography provided by the Summit.
Last year, Witt served briefly as the director of the Rebuild Northbay Foundation, a nonprofit founded in October 2017 by Darius Anderson, a Sacramento lobbyist and managing member at Sonoma Media Investments, the owner of the Press Democrat and several other local publications.
Elizabeth Gore, Supervisor Gore’s wife and president of Alice, a company that produces artificial intelligence to advise entrepreneurs, serves as board chair of theRebuild North Bay Foundation.
Witt said he will work on the project in partnership with the NACo, the organization where Gore chairs the resilience committee, in hopes of enhancing the disaster resilience of counties around the country.
“We’re going to be the advisor and also help [the cities] build a public-private partnership to make their counties more resilient,” Witt said.
The pilot program is a reboot of Project Impact, a short-lived FEMA disaster mitigation program Witt launched during President Bill Clinton’s administration and described as the “very first public-private partnership program in the federal government.”
In its few years of operation, Project Impact offered voluntary buyouts to thousands of residents in states impacted by disasters, according to Witt. In Iowa, the state’s Fish and Game Department planted native flowers on the newly-vacant properties.
President George W. Bush cancelled Project Impact in 2001. A website announcing Project Impact 2 states that instead of being led by the government, Project Impact 2 will be led by public-private partnerships.
Project Impact 2’s partners will “share their expertise, networks, monetary and human capital, other capabilities to build more resilient and sustainable communities nationally,” according to its website.
NACo has not announced anything about a possible partnership with Project Impact 2.
“At this time, we don’t have anything to announce. We are evaluating how best to advance the concept,” a NACo spokesperson stated in response to questions about Witt’s speech.
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