With Michael D. Brown, the embattled public face of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, taking harsh criticism for the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the secretary of homeland security this week assigned a top Coast Guard official to help bail him out.
Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard's chief of staff, was assigned on Monday to be Brown's deputy and to take over operational control of the search-and-rescue and recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. The unprecedented task of coordinating the massive effort was handed off to a leader and expert who was described by colleagues as unflappable, engaging and intensely organized.
Allen is also familiar with the inner workings of the Department of Homeland Security, where the Coast Guard has landed alongside FEMA as one of the designated main protectors of the United States. Allen has been one of the primary shepherds of change at the Coast Guard since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has been praised for his ability to reach out to other agencies to develop "big-picture" approaches to homeland defense.
Retired Adm. James M. Loy, former commandant of the Coast Guard and former deputy secretary of Homeland Security, said yesterday that Allen has the experience to help steer the federal response to the Katrina catastrophe in the right direction after early shortfalls. When Loy was the Coast Guard chief of staff from 1996 to 1998, Allen was his resource director, and Loy said he "always brings a new idea per minute to the table as far as how to grapple with difficult situations."
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff handpicked Allen to essentially lead the federal recovery efforts in New Orleans. As Brown's deputy, Allen will work with Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore -- head of the military's Joint Task Force Katrina -- to oversee, manage and lead all military and civilian recovery efforts.
Loy also praised Allen's experience, which ranges from being a sailor in the early part of his career to leading the Coast Guard's transition into the Department of Homeland Security. Allen also led the Coast Guard's maritime response to the Sept. 11 attacks, mobilizing his Atlantic forces to shut down major seaports and to control U.S. waters.
Since then, Allen has been working on transforming the Coast Guard's dominant missions of drug interdiction and migrant issues to protecting the borders from terrorism.
"If I was confronted with a multi-stakeholder nightmare, Thad Allen is the guy I would want to have put in charge of coming up with the solution that would keep the stakeholders engaged, participating and focused on the chore at hand," said Loy, who is now a senior counselor at the Cohen Group in Washington.
The task in Louisiana and Mississippi is in some ways uniquely suited for the Coast Guard, which is routinely involved in search-and-rescue, recovery, waterway reconstitution and pollution cleanup efforts. The Coast Guard has rescued thousands of people stranded last week as a result of the hurricane and subsequent flooding.
Allen, 56, is a native of Tucson, and he graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1971. He later went on to earn a master's degree in Public Administration from George Washington University and a master of science degree from the Sloan School of Management at MIT.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Allen provided the Coast Guard with an oral history of the day's events, discussing the decision to block the Potomac River and secure ports in New York and Boston. He spoke of the need to "keep cool" and "not get excited about everything," according to a transcript of the interview.
"I guess what I'm saying was I wasn't overcome by the magnitude of the event where it paralyzed or impacted my thinking," Allen said in the March 2002 interview. "I was treating it like I would a major catastrophe because we get involved in those over our career a lot. This was an order of magnitude that nobody could imagine. But nonetheless you get on task and you start working."
Adm. Thomas H. Collins, the Coast Guard's commandant, said yesterday that Allen will make a great deputy principal federal official, the official title of Brown's deputy.
"The Coast Guard is blessed with many talented personnel," Collins said in a statement. "Vice Admiral Allen is a tested leader and knows how to manage a crisis. We're glad we could send one of our best to help [Brown] manage the extraordinary challenges of this rescue and recovery effort."
Cmdr. Brendan McPherson, who was Allen's public affairs officer on 9/11 and is now at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, said Allen is an extremely effective leader, especially in crisis situations.
"He has an amazing ability to quickly recognize a situation that needs leadership, that needs action, and then to develop a plan that can be quickly implemented," McPherson said, adding he was impressed with Allen during and after the terrorist attacks. "He quickly identified that, pulled in the resources that he needed, developed a plan, and then implemented a plan to secure the maritime borders."
Allen lives with his wife, Pamela, in Potomac, and they have three grown children and two grandchildren. The couple was away for the past week and returned to learn that Allen was going to be assigned to Louisiana. Their 30th wedding anniversary is in October, and Pamela Allen is not sure he will be home to celebrate.
"We've been sitting back wanting to help, and he was given the privilege of being able to help," said Pamela Allen, who is assistant dean for academic and career services at the George Mason University School of Management.
"He's been in the Coast Guard his entire life, and one of the things he does and does well is what the Coast Guard motto is, be always prepared. He takes every new event and gets down and starts working and sees it to its end."