By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard admiral selected yesterday to lead the government's response to the havoc created by Hurricane Katrina is known as a decisive manager who makes the most of limited resources.
Serving in New England in the early 1990s, then-Capt. Thad Allen was nicknamed "the Schwarzkopf of Connecticut" by members of his staff who saw similarities between the way he handled an oil spill in sensitive Long Island Sound and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led U.S. forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"He doesn't let red tape and bureaucracy get in his way — he figures out a way to do things," said Master Chief Petty Officer Skip Bowen, who has served with Allen three times in the past 15 years, and is stationed in the Florida Keys.
Allen, 56 and a vice admiral, commanded the Coast Guard's Eastern Seaboard and Gulf region on Sept. 11, 2001, when every port was considered a potential terrorist target and even the most innocuous foreign merchant ship had to be viewed as possibly sinister.
Already juggling missions ranging from drug interdiction to environmental enforcement, the Coast Guard suddenly found itself charged with making sure that ports and shipping were safe from attack.
"We're an organizational chameleon," Allen said in an interview for a Coast Guard oral history of the Sept. 11 attacks. "We can be whatever color anybody wants us to be for the mission at hand."
For his efforts, Allen was promoted to chief of staff, third in the Coast Guard's chain of command.
Like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard is part of Homeland Security. But it has retained an autonomy that enabled it to swing into action in Katrina's wake and immediately send helicopters to pluck survivors from rooftops in flooded New Orleans.
Allen yesterday replaced FEMA director Michael Brown, who has become a lightning rod for criticism, as the so-called "principal federal officer" on the disaster scene. Brown was called back to Washington, D.C.
Allen had been serving as Brown's deputy in New Orleans the past few days. He will be working with Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the commander of Army troops in New Orleans.
Allen met with his staff yesterday and scheduled a lunch for today with elected officials from the New Orleans area. At a news conference, he set an ambitious goal: to return to a semblance of normalcy.
"Quite frankly, one of our goals now needs to be to reconstitute communities and community capabilities to get on with life," Allen said. "We need to start talking about the reconstitution of services and how we can assist in doing that."
Allen's appointment is not the first time the Bush administration has turned to a Coast Guard officer to salvage a troubled operation. Retired Commandant James Loy was drafted to rescue the foundering Transportation Security Administration in 2002, and eventually became deputy secretary for Homeland Security.
Allen's career has included overseeing drug and migrant programs in Miami and a tour of duty during the Vietnam War.
He also holds master's degrees in public administration and science from George Washington University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively.