Jun 11, 2010 2:22 PM by Chris Welty
WASHINGTON (AP) - The oil spoiling the teeming marshes and
white-sand beaches of the Gulf Coast is also threatening the
pristine image of the burly, take-charge leader who has become the
federal government's go-to guy in a disaster.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, one of the few federal officials
whose reputation survived Hurricane Katrina intact, is facing
growing criticism that he and his agency are overwhelmed by the
catastrophe. It's unfamiliar territory for a former Coast Guard
Academy football captain who has managed responses to crises that
include the earthquake in Haiti, Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist
"It's very discombobulated and disorganized," Orange Beach,
Ala., Mayor Tony Kennon said of the federal response after tar
balls stained the beach and entered Perdido Bay this week, without
protection from booms. "They had five weeks to get ready for this,
and it still happened."
Back in 2005, most leaders in the Gulf had kinder words for
Allen's operations after then-President George W. Bush tapped him
to take over the widely panned Hurricane Katrina response initially
led by former FEMA Director Michael Brown.
Allen was credited with turning the effort around. And when the
Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, the White House was
so confident it had the right man to lead the response that it
persuaded Allen to delay his planned May retirement.
Allen, 61, who relinquished his role as head of the Coast Guard
but is staying on as the spill's national incident commander, has
since become the public face of the government's efforts. The Obama
administration is increasingly relying on him in White House press
briefings and elsewhere to try to assure the public that the
government is in charge. Briefing reporters this week, Allen came
off cool, calm and confident.
But just as Katrina brought unforeseen challenges, the oil spill
has proved unprecedented and unwieldy. Allen is taking his lumps.
Early on, the Coast Guard was widely viewed as giving BP too
much control on the scene, effectively looking the other way when
the company offered misleadingly rosy assessments. Allen, for
example, went along for weeks with BP's insistence that measuring
the amount of oil spewing from the well was unimportant, only later
pressing for accurate figures after scientists complained that it
could help officials plan for containing the mess and account for
There's also the Katrina-like gap between what federal officials
say is happening and what local leaders say they are seeing. Since
the beginning, Allen has insisted the government and BP deployed
more resources than needed. That is consistently disputed by local
and state officials who complain of poor coordination, shortages of
boom and skimmers, agonizing delays in getting responses to
requests and a general reluctance to try new or experimental
While BP has taken the brunt of it, much of the criticism also
is falling on Allen, the son of a Coast Guard man who rose through
the ranks to become the 23rd commandant of the agency in 2006.
"I have spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the
Coast Guard than fighting the oil," Plaquemines Parish President
Billy Nungesser said. "We've got to find someone to put in charge
who has the guts and the will to make some decisions."
Nungesser's parish includes the Louisiana marshes first hit by
oil a month ago, where recently pelicans were found coated with
David Camardelle, mayor of Grand Isle, La., said he meets daily
with state and federal officials but that when he brings up a
problem or offers a solution he's told "BP or EPA, or the Coast
Guard is going to have to approve this before we can do anything."
"How can we accept that when our lives depend on their
action?" Camardelle asked, testifying Thursday before a Senate
Homeland Security subcommittee.
During briefings with reporters, Allen has noted the frustration
of dealing with a spill across the Gulf. He frequently points to
the number of fishermen and shrimpers who have been enlisted into
the response - the "vessels of opportunity" as he has dubbed the
But this strategy too has come under fire.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said many of the fishermen in her
state "don't think it's working."
And Camardelle complained that shrimpers in his community who
sign up for the program "are being sent off on ships where they
find no oil (and) ... they want to return and help protect their
communities." At other times they were "ready to go but just
waited at the docks for the call," he told lawmakers.
Unfailingly polite in public, Allen takes criticism in stride.
He said Friday that local officials have a direct line to the
government's command center.
Though born in the desert - in Tucson, Ariz. - he's been around
the water all his life, moving from post to post as a Coast Guard
brat and, later, for his own career. He worked on his first oil
spill 20 years ago as a lieutenant when a barge ran aground near
Atlantic City, N.J. He says responding is like fighting a battle:
The trick is moving resources quickly to where they're needed.
Within the Coast Guard - which itself captures the public's
imagination with its rescue swimmers, drug busts on the high seas
and missions to save stranded fishermen - Allen is widely admired.
On the Gulf, there's little doubt who's in charge when Allen's
He has broad authority from the White House to make decisions
and can pick up the phone and call BP CEO Tony Hayward when he
needs answers. Like the president, Allen in recent days has shown
more impatience with BP, writing Hayward a terse letter this week
demanding more information about how the company is settling
Last week, preparing for a potentially contentious meeting with
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, Allen sat at a conference table with Coast
Guard officers and picked apart a planned presentation addressing
Riley's complaints about protective boom being moved from Alabama
to other states.
"Guys, we have to be exact with this," Allen said, gesturing
with one hand as he drank coffee with the other. "One misstatement
and the meeting goes south. We have to be transparent.
When inventory numbers on the amount of boom available in
Alabama didn't add up, Allen had had enough. He got up, grabbed an
easel and a marker and began writing. The numbers got straightened
out to his satisfaction just before Riley walked into the room.
The problem appears to have been resolved, but Riley made clear
his lingering frustration with Allen in a statement this week in
which he credited the president for fixing it.
"I want to thank the president for his personal intervention
with the Coast Guard," the governor said. "Boom that was deployed
here in Alabama should never have been taken from us in the first
Briefing reporters before meeting with President Barack Obama on
Monday, Allen acknowledged that the Coast Guard never anticipated
something like the BP gusher.
Even though the agency ran a Gulf Coast response drill in 2002
simulating a blown wellhead - with Allen playing the role of
incident commander - Allen said the expectation is for a single oil
slick contained in a specific area. The Deepwater Horizon spill, he
said, is taxing resources because the oil is breaking up and being
pushed by winds and currents in all different directions. He
acknowledged that the disaster will likely change the way the
country plans for spills.
"We're trying to adapt and learn from a spill that's never
happened before in this country," he said.
While early reviews have been mixed at best, the final verdict
on Allen's performance is still out.
"We've lost some battles (but) we can win this war," Nungesser
said. "But it's got to happen quickly."
Allen doesn't have much time to turn the tide. He still plans to
retire July 1, although he acknowledges he might not be able to
take off the uniform that quickly.
"I didn't anticipate this would happen to end my career, but
I'm honored to have been asked to do this," he told reporters.
"It's not a very easy job ... It's one of the hardest things I've
ever had to deal with."