Witt was born in Paris, Arkansas, and was raised in Dardanelle, in Yell County, Arkansas. He founded a construction business in 1968. At 34, he was elected County Judge of Yell County. Witt was re-elected to the post six times and was recognized by the National Association of Counties for his work. Witt was a charter Board Chairman of Child Development Inc., which works to advance Head Start programs.
In 1988, Witt was appointed by then-Governor Bill Clinton to be the head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services where he reorganized the state's emergency management process.
When Clinton was elected President, he appointed Witt to head FEMA, for which Witt was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1993. In 1996, he was given cabinet rank.
During his tenure, Clinton elevated FEMA to cabinet status, and Witt overturned FEMA's previously poor reputation. A 1992 interim report by the Congress (prior to Hurricane Andrew, which led to further criticism of FEMA) had said, "FEMA is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment ..."
By 1996, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial said, "FEMA has developed a sterling reputation for delivering disaster-relief services, a far cry from its abysmal standing before James Lee Witt took its helm in 1993. How did Witt turn FEMA around so quickly? Well, he is the first director of the agency to have emergency-management experience. He stopped the staffing of the agency by political patronage. He removed layers of bureaucracy. Most important, he instilled in the agency a spirit of preparedness, of service to the customer, of willingness to listen to ideas of local and state officials to make the system work better."
Witt's term in office saw approximately 348 Presidentially declared disaster areas in more than 6,500 counties and in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. Witt supervised the response to the 1997 Red River Flood- a devastating flood in the Dakotas-the most costly earthquake, and a dozen serious hurricanes.
As of August 2007, Witt serves on the Management Team of Global Options Group LLC, as President of James Lee Witt Associates LLC, which provides consulting on emergency and disaster preparedness to local and state governments. Witt also served as CEO of the International Code Council, which sets international standards for building construction, 2003-06.
On September 3, 2005, he was hired by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to oversee reconstruction efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In December 2005, the University of Texas System hired his firm to prepare, process, and recover claims for damages from FEMA related to natural disasters.
Witt was mentioned as a potential candidate for Governor of Arkansas in 1997 but took himself out of consideration and stayed at FEMA until he was replaced by Joe Allbaugh, the first appointee of President George W. Bush.