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The government’s ‘rock star’ in charge of the oil spill

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Allen said he attended every home game of the 1972 season, when the Dolphins became the only NFL team to go undefeated and win the Super Bowl. When he was promoted from ensign, several Dolphins players attended his party — and, at Allen’s request, they threw his commanding officer into a pool.

He bounced through cutter ships and graduate school and into command posts. He was Coast Guard chief of staff in 2005 when, a week after Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf, President Bush tapped Allen to take over from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On his first day in still-flooded New Orleans, Allen was riding down Poydras Street in a high-water Army transport vehicle when he heard screams from a building. The owners of Mother’s, a famed breakfast joint, had returned to the restaurant to find rotting food and heavy damage. Allen stopped in; the owners told him they’d never reopen.

Yes, you will, he said, and I’ll eat your first meal.

A month later, Allen was first in line when the doors opened. He ordered “debris and grits.” The story is immortalized on the menu, and when Allen walks into Mother’s now, waitresses fuss over him.

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Allen drew a similar reception last August in Nome, where, as Coast Guard commandant, he led a group of administration officials investigating the effects of climate change in the Arctic. Allen had been traveling to Alaska for years to discuss the issue; the town greeted him and his group with a feast of king salmon, halibut and king crab.

“Even with the limited time I’ve spent with him, I think of him as a very close friend and ally to understand what our needs are up here in the Arctic Ocean,” said Denise Michels, the mayor of Nome. “He’s very easy to talk to. I like that he’s direct, up front with you. Just tells you what he’s thinking and gives us ideas on how we can move forward.”

She added, “He needs to work on his Eskimo dancing a little.”

The Arctic issue was shaping up as a capstone for Allen’s career.

Then the Deepwater Horizon blew up.

Heat and humidity choked Venice, La., on the afternoon of Response Day 37. The air smelled of fresh lumber. In a newly installed trailer, Allen listened as a dozen Coast Guard officers and oil cleanup contractors barraged him with complaints.

The supplies weren’t coming quickly enough. Booms were scarce. A black market had sent prices skyrocketing. The center needed a public information officer to help counter criticism from local officials.

“We’re getting killed down here, especially by our parish president,” one of the men told Allen.

Allen granted some requests immediately — we’ll put a Coast Guard man right next to the parish president, he said, so he can complain straight to us — and challenged others. He asked for a list of local boom salesmen.

A little later, he walked outside to brief the media. Someone asked what message he wanted to send to Louisiana residents. “I’m responsible for the response,” Allen replied, “and I’m here.”

The next morning he was out the door before dawn, racing to a New Orleans television studio for a series of national broadcast and cable interviews. In between, he honed his message with aides — “I think I’m confusing people there” — and said a personal phone call to one of the anchors had appeared to earn him a much friendlier welcome than had previous appearances.

He noted that Hayward was doing the same TV routine about the same time. Soon after the last interview, the two of them compared notes on the phone.

Over breakfast at Mother’s, Allen explained his crisis management strategy. First, build a mental model of what you’re up against. That was the government’s initial failure in Katrina, he said — it reacted as if it were a normal hurricane.

With the oil spill, Allen’s model is an unprecedented national environmental disaster, with no human access to its source, and the technology to stop it owned by the private sector, including the company responsible for the disaster.

That is why, in his model, calls to “federalize” the spill response and kick BP out simply don’t compute.

“I don’t even know what ‘federalized’ means,” Allen said after finishing a plate of debris and grits. “It’s always federalized.…The only difference is, if we fired BP, we’d just be telling contractors what to do, instead of BP telling them what to do.”

Allen left his commandant post last week. He will continue as national incident commander at least until July 1, when federal rules will force him to retire, at least briefly. He’ll spend most of this month on the gulf, where, someone suggested over breakfast, he’s a bit of a celebrity.

No, Allen corrected. More like family.

jtankersley@latimes.com


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