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The government's 'rock star' in charge of the oil spill

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen has long commanded respect for his leadership in disaster response. How he handles the spill in the Gulf of Mexico could be his crowning achievement — or an irrevocable blemish.

June 01, 2010|By Jim Tankersley, Los Angeles Times
  • Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen speaks to reporters in New Orleans about efforts to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen speaks to reporters in New Orleans about efforts… (Cheryl Gerber / Associated…)

Reporting from Houma, La. — — Response Day 37 began at 6 a.m. with a weather report, then an accounting of boats, burns and recon flights.

Inside a drab conference room filled to capacity, a projector flashed maps showing tendrils of oil advancing on the Louisiana coast. Finally, all eyes turned to the man in the mustache and green flight suit at the head of a horseshoe of tables.

The government and private response workers in the audience had watched cable news belittle their battle against the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Now, the commander in that fight, the man in the mustache, warned his troops that the scrutiny was about to intensify. He welcomed it.

"You don't need to get caught up on CNN," Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said. Reporters and critics, he added, "don't scare me, and sometimes I scare them."

He finished his pep talk with an admonition recycled from his last seemingly hopeless mission in the Gulf of Mexico: Hurricane Katrina. Whomever you run into, Allen told his ragtag band, treat them like a sister or brother.

It is a philosophy that has won Allen wide acclaim, including ceremonial dances in Alaska, a spot on the menu in a New Orleans institution and a mischievous favor from the most successful NFL team of all time. Now, it will either carry him to a career-capping triumph or tarnish his legacy and, perhaps, the president's.

Allen, 61, is tackling his greatest challenge in 39 years of national service: attempting to gain control of an uncontrollable disaster. If the weight of it wasn't apparent this day, it would be the next, when President Obama told Gulf Coast governors that if they had any problems, "they need to talk to Thad Allen. And if they're not getting satisfaction from Thad Allen, then they can talk to me."

Now, when cameras focus on the disaster's daily update, they zoom in on Thad Allen, who has become the face of the Obama administration's renewed effort to show it is in charge.

Allen's way of fixing things includes leaning heavily on a carefully cultivated group of "sisters and brothers" who revere him — including the head of BP, Tony Hayward, the brother who, in most versions of the spill story, plays the chief villain.

Looking for an update on efforts to plug the oil leak last week, Allen picked up his BlackBerry. "I'll call Tony Hayward and ask him what's up," he said.

The call went to voicemail. "Hey Tony, this is Thad," Allen said. "If you get a chance, please give me a call." It was 6:30 a.m. Within minutes, Hayward was on the line.

Allen's approach embodies the administration's shotgun marriage with BP to contain and clean up the oil spill — and his in-charge aura is what critics say the administration has lacked since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in April.

"Thad Allen is a rock star, and he gained his fame by competence," said David Hayes, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department, who has traveled with Allen to Alaska and works closely with him on spill response. "Whether you're on Bourbon Street in New Orleans or the community center in Nome, Alaska, Thad Allen is a known quantity and respected by all."

Well, not everyone. Allen and the federal government have endured attacks from local officials and cable news commentators frustrated by the pace of the cleanup. Some environmental groups have called for Obama to boot BP out of the response effort and to replace Allen.

As Allen joked last week, in the meeting at the start of Response Day 37, "I'm unsuccessfully trying to get fired."

In the spring of 2002, federal and state officials set up shop in New Orleans for an eerily prescient training exercise. In the wake of Sept. 11, the Bush administration was throwing huge resources at national security, including new demands on the Coast Guard.

Some administration officials wanted to cancel the training exercise. Allen, then the Coast Guard's Atlantic commander, argued to proceed. So for several days, he found himself in the Louisiana Superdome, overseeing an imaginary response to a well blowout that spewed 5,000 barrels of oil for 30 days.

In the course of the exercise, Allen's team noted several weaknesses in the federal government's response capabilities, including bureaucratic hurdles to deploying oil dispersants and burning off oil slicks. Perhaps just as important, Allen made a friend: Roland Guidry, a top oil spill official for the state of Louisiana, who would pop up again after Katrina, and again this year.

Allen has made a habit of collecting friends, almost from the day he graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1971. His first assignment was in Miami, where one of his neighbors was Jim Mandich, a tight end for the NFL's Dolphins. Soon, he was hanging out with members of the team.

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