Coast Guard official fills leadership void in Katrina relief effort

Vice Adm. Thad Allen seeks to cut red tape, reassure local officials.

NEW ORLEANS -- Standing in a deserted air terminal in the early-morning dark of September 14, America's man of the moment realized that his honeymoon had lasted not quite 24 hours.

The newspapers in Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen's hands all led with criticisms from the Louisiana governor that the federal government was failing to retrieve bodies from the fetid waters that still engulfed New Orleans. The apparent failure to recover the bodies was adding insult and yet another grievance to the many injuries that Louisianans had already suffered.

Allen had spent most of the previous day with President Bush, who had just named him the "principal federal official" in charge of the Hurricane Katrina rescue-and-recovery effort. Some in the White House wanted Allen to severely chastise Gov. Kathleen Blanco. But polls already showed that a clear majority of Americans disapproved of the way officials at all levels of government, including Bush, were handling the recovery effort. Another circular firing squad by federal, state, and local officials wasn't going to help matters.

Instead, Allen called Blanco and in his reasonable style asked her, "Governor, have I done something to give you the impression that I'm interested in anything else but helping the people of Louisiana?" In truth, Allen had already interceded with a reluctant Pentagon to deploy military mortuary units to New Orleans, and these units even then were engaged in the grim business of retrieving the bodies of Katrina's victims. Although Blanco quickly softened her criticism, the incident was clearly a harbinger of more friction to come.

In times of war or crisis, the nation always looks for a leader to step forward and take charge, and usually that someone is in uniform. In the American pantheon, such men of action are accorded special honor, but potential failure and ignominy beckon as well. Consider Gens. Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell in Operation Desert Storm. Then think of Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam.

Certainly Allen didn't have to be warned about the perils of his new position. He had watched firsthand as his predecessor, FEMA Director Michael Brown, was replaced and publicly humiliated. Allen, an officer known for engendering fierce loyalty in his subordinates, had called a number of the most trusted and competent officers who have worked for him before -- officers his grandfather would have called "dogs that could hunt." Some on his newly assembled team warned Allen that he was taking on a nearly impossible task from a very exposed position -- the admiral was becoming the most recognizable face in a disaster of historic proportions.

The position would surely draw Allen into the maelstrom of partisan politics surrounding the relief effort, and make him a lightning rod for mayors and governors already enraged by the federal government's halting response. Congressional investigations were under way, with more sure to follow. Everyone understood that the response to Hurricane Katrina was a milestone in modern American governance and politics, and would be dissected for years to come for the lessons at the heart of the tragedy. Only a certain kind of person would want to put his arms around such a catastrophe.

Allen, however, had an oft-used saying that would guide him in this crisis: Transparency breeds self-correcting behavior. He would open the process up, shine the light of media scrutiny on the entire recovery project, and let the American people judge their efforts.

As the onsite coordinator in New Orleans for the past week, Allen had also become acquainted with a former Marine colonel named Terry Ebbert, the director of homeland security for the city of New Orleans. Ebbert weathered Katrina's fury inside New Orleans, and the impact of seeing the city plunged into almost primordial darkness in the space of just 48 hours was etched onto his features. The first thing that Allen asked Ebbert was what he needed most from the federal government.

"We need hope," Ebbert replied.

When Allen's small Coast Guard Citation jet lifted off from Washington Dulles International Airport, the Northern Virginia countryside was cloaked in fog that hung in the trees and filled the valleys with pools of mist. Sunrise was just a splash of color on the horizon. The man of the hour was slipping out of the nation's capital virtually unnoticed, accompanied by an entourage consisting of one junior aide and a National Journal reporter along for the ride. Allen had his marching orders directly from the president: Speed the federal response to Katrina. Cut through the red tape. Solve problems before they bubble up into the press as controversies.

Almost before the Citation's landing gear retracted, Allen was nodding to sleep in an effort to steal a short nap following a long line of 16-to-18-hour days. To the president's list of goals he had added one of his own. Allen intended to live up to the promise he'd made to the former Marine colonel: He would give New Orleans and the Gulf Coast reason to hope. That's a lifesaving mission any Coast Guardsman could embrace.

Hierarchy of Need

When Bush reached down to choose the No. 3 official in the Coast Guard to manage the Katrina recovery, he made an interesting choice that surprised few who knew Allen personally. A stocky man with a gruff voice, an air of quiet competence, and the bedside manner of a country doctor, Allen had excelled throughout a 30-plus-year career. He was one of the youngest officers ever to make admiral in the Coast Guard. As the son of an enlisted chief petty officer to whom the Coast Guard had thrown a lifeline during the Great Depression, Allen had grown up with a deep love of the service and an innate respect for the values of duty and sacrifice, and he could effortlessly mask a keen intellect with a seaman's salty humor.

Because it combines the "can-do" culture of the other uniformed services with a penchant for operating hand-in-glove with local and state officials, as well as with multiple federal agencies, the Coast Guard ethos was well suited to the exigencies of a monster hurricane. Indeed, Allen would often think back to his long experience in managing oil spills as a frame of reference for the countless challenges left in Katrina's wake. Like Katrina, a bad oil spill could destroy local economies, overwhelm state capabilities, and represent a drain on strategic resources. Oil spills also inevitably threw a lot of very pissed-off people from every level of government into proximity with one another. Yes, in many ways Katrina was like a bad oil spill, albeit one roughly the size of Great Britain.

When asked about his plan for addressing the short- and long-term objectives in the Katrina recovery effort, Allen said that in his experience, strategic plans were shelved about the time a date was stamped on them. He was more interested in communicating a clear strategic intent so that everyone involved in what was already a massive effort could swim in generally the same direction, like a large school of fish that instinctively turned at the same moment.

The first guiding principle would be to treat all of Katrina's many victims like family. In terms of strategic intent, Allen drew a simple pyramid. At the bottom, he scribbled in the Superdome, a symbol of the botched rescue effort. At the top, he wrote "New Orleans 2.0," representing the ultimate vision of a future Big Easy resurrected from the foul waters. As you moved up the pyramid, Allen explained, the focus shifted from disaster response to recovery, and the objectives changed based loosely on psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs."

"If you are drowning, the first thing you want is dry land," Allen said. "If you are on dry land, the next thing you want is something to eat and drink. Having eaten, you want a place to sleep, and then you want a better place to sleep. Then you want aid to start rebuilding and getting your life back in order."

Such a construct suggests near-term goals of draining New Orleans, recovering bodies, assessing environmental safety issues, and launching a massive debris-removal project. Then come the difficult issues of finding temporary housing for many of the roughly 1 million citizens displaced by the storm and undertaking a massive effort to match federal relief aid to individual victims. The long-term goal of a new New Orleans that would be even better than the original raises the thorniest issue of all: how to protect the below-sea-level city from the surrounding waters of the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Gulf of Mexico.

"The fact is, you can create a vision of New Orleans and build the levee system to it, or you can build the city around what you think is an affordable levee system," Allen said. "Quite frankly, working the optimum trade-off between those two approaches will be a big challenge. The vision will have to come from local and state officials, with the federal government trying to create the conditions to realize it. At some point, however, we will need that strategic vision so that a lot of effort isn't wasted rebuilding and then tearing down."

Conceptually organizing the federal response to Hurricane Katrina based on a hierarchy of needs makes logical sense, but reaching Maslow's "self-actualization" in the form of a rebuilt New Orleans seems a long way off, given America's unique political psychology. Nowhere is the issue of federal prerogatives versus states' rights more sensitive than in the South, particularly in a Louisiana and a New Orleans led by Democrats dealing with a Republican administration. To succeed in the Katrina recovery effort, Allen knew he would have to forge some semblance of unity out of those competing political interests. Witnessed firsthand, however, the recovery efforts looked less like a school of like-minded fish, and more like a feeding frenzy.

An American Exodus

"Well, Admiral, you've got your hands full," said Alabama Gov. Bob Riley.

"Yes, sir, and I'm here to listen to your concerns and tell you a little about what we're doing," Allen responded, having arranged a courtesy call at a Coast Guard training base in Mobile, Ala.

"Well, we're not nearly as bad hit as Louisiana and Mississippi, but we do need to know what you want us to do about evacuees," said Riley, whose state had already placed 1,300 trailers in its parks and reopened an old Army base in anticipation of a further wave of Katrina victims. With evacuees living in virtually every hotel and motel room in Alabama, Riley raised questions that were on the minds of all governors with refugees in their states: What about federal assistance for schools, infrastructure, Medicaid, and health care for the new residents, many of them destitute? "We have no idea how many are even in our own state," Riley said. "So mostly what we need from you is direction."

On the flight to his headquarters in Baton Rouge, Allen mused that every day he moved further away from the familiar realm of a Coast Guard admiral into uncharted territory. "Now I sense that I'm about to become a housing czar," he added wryly.

The effort to move evacuees off gymnasium floors and into temporary housing underscored the immense challenges of perhaps the largest dis- placement of Americans since the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Based on data from past hurricanes, FEMA officials estimated they would need 200,000 trailers and mobile homes to house evacuees just from New Orleans. The pace of the operation was also extremely critical, with past experience suggesting that the longer it took to find housing, the more likely that evacuees would simply decide to relocate to another state. Yet, no one knew whether FEMA was capable of assembling what amounted to a midsized city's worth of temporary housing in just a matter of months. No one had ever tried it before.

And then there's the matter of political philosophy. The White House much preferred the idea of giving evacuees vouchers to rent rather than constructing temporary towns totally dependent on federal aid. Louisiana Gov. Blanco understandably considered rent vouchers an invitation to export her voters. That was just one of many examples of how federal, state, and local political interests came into conflict in such a mammoth operation.

To sort through the competing interests and to balance an uncertain supply and demand in terms of housing and evacuees, Allen proposed establishing a regional housing council. Because states are connected to federal emergency assistance through local FEMA offices that report directly to headquarters in Washington in stovepipe fashion, each of the states had little idea of what the others were doing to cope with the Katrina exodus. But even the modest proposal to create a regional housing council to coordinate those efforts met with skepticism.

"I called Jeb Bush and talked to him about the idea of a housing council, and I can tell you he wasn't overly enthusiastic," said Allen, who as the Coast Guard's former regional commander in Miami knew the Florida governor well. "It reminded me once again that we cannot come in here and seem to impose federal solutions on the states."

Putting Out Fires

FEMA's Joint Field Office and Allen's new headquarters in Baton Rouge are housed in a massive warehouse that was rapidly filling up with hundreds of federal officials, all of them jockeying for desk and computer space and trying to re-establish communications links crippled by the storm. Baton Rouge itself was bursting at the seams with evacuees from New Orleans, as well as federals pouring in from Washington. Hardly a hotel room or rental car could be found in the entire city, and flights coming and going were overbooked.

As the first order of business, Allen was determined to put out the fire over body retrieval in New Orleans that was kindled by the governor's criticism. At a hastily arranged press briefing, he explained how each of his four-man retrieval teams already at work included a chaplain who treated the deceased with utmost dignity during the transfer to a temporary morgue in St. Gabriel. A possible motive for the governor's criticisms was revealed in the succeeding days when the military was ordered to hand mortuary operations over to a local contractor who had been hired by the state to the tune of $100,000 a day. Everyone, however, understood the general need to hire local contractors for reconstruction work in a state that had also lost an estimated 35 percent of its revenue stream with the shutdown of New Orleans.

As insurance against further criticisms, Allen introduced at the press conference Dr. Louis Cataldie, the director of emergency medical services for New Orleans. The two men had worked closely together in the week following Katrina's landfall.

"Admiral Allen is a man of his word who's done everything he promised. Believe me, if I had a problem with the level of federal support I'm receiving, I'd tell you. I'm not bashful," Cataldie told the local press. "Am I frustrated? Sure, and I'll remain frustrated until we pick the last body up out of that water. Even then, it will take months, maybe years, to identify all the bodies."

A compact man with a neatly trimmed white beard, Cataldie had the shell-shocked look so common to those who had weathered the storm and its aftermath. Cataldie had endured the aftermath in the Superdome, where he was forced to conduct triage and limit care to those patients he judged the most likely to survive the ordeal. Ten of his fellow citizens had died in the arena.

After the press conference, I asked Cataldie whether he was worried about drawing the ire of Gov. Blanco with his vocal support for Allen and the federal effort.

"You know, I'm not a politically correct person. We don't have time to play politics or be politically correct, because we have to get all our people out of that water," Cataldie said. "But I think you can tell a lot about a man by looking him in the eye and shaking his hand, and I believe Admiral Allen. I also happen to think it's important that people have faith in their government."

A Damaged Agency

Even as Allen was calming the body-retrieval controversy, his team in Baton Rouge was discovering a far more substantive problem. The resignation of FEMA Director Brown and the recalling of his team of advisers from Baton Rouge exposed the degree to which top FEMA leadership had been politicized since the small agency had been absorbed into the much larger Department of Homeland Security; their departures, in short, left a serious leadership vacuum.

The truly catastrophic nature of Katrina had also exposed weaknesses in FEMA's model as a lean agency that would methodically expand in times of crisis by hiring temporary workers and outside contractors. For instance, agency sources said that ever since FEMA became a part of DHS, regional offices had been under a hiring freeze, further thinning out key staff. Thus as the Katrina recovery project continued to transition from rescue and crisis response to disaster relief and rebuilding, the burden of the entire effort was increasingly shifting onto the shoulders of an already sagging agency that was overly politicized at the top, was directionless at the regional level, was badly understaffed in the field, and was demoralized throughout.

"There's no doubt that morale has been impacted by the Katrina controversy and the fact that no one has anything nice to say about the agency," said Joe Picciano, deputy principal federal official in Baton Rouge and a career FEMA manager who has witnessed virtually every major disaster to strike U.S. territory in the last 20 years. "A lot of FEMA people are upset. I know I am. So that's an absolutely valid concern, considering the challenges we're facing."

Scott Wells is the chief FEMA representative in New Orleans, where he replaced Adm. Allen as the principal federal official forward. A former Army officer who retains his military bearing, Wells was responsible for preparing FEMA's response in Louisiana. He conceded that the field staff was inadequate from the start in dealing with a catastrophic storm like Katrina.

"FEMA is built on an outsourcing model, and we have hardly any depth in terms of operations, logistics, or planning," Wells said. "The team I had in Baton Rouge was probably a fifth of what was needed, and thus I had to work my people virtually around the clock. That meant all we could do was react, because we never had the time or staff to plan ahead. Every night, our stock of supplies to send forward to New Orleans was depleted to zero because there wasn't enough in the pipeline. And FEMA headquarters wouldn't send additional people to New Orleans until we could secure hotel rooms for them, which, from a field perspective, was bogus."

When I asked how his team was holding up under the stress, Wells shook his head.

"You know, I personally feel like I'm surrounded in the Alamo," he said. "You're in here with your buddies, all of you are fighting as hard as you can, but you're getting hammered by wave, after wave, after wave. And the problems just keep coming."

If the Levee Breaks

From the air at night, New Orleans was a watery ghost town. Far below, search lights glimmered in the dark swamp of St. Bernard Parish and East Orleans like distant fireflies. Adm. Allen's Coast Guard helicopter banked hard over the Mississippi River and came to a hover over the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious command ship berthed dockside. Nearby, the festive holiday lights of the giant Carnival cruise ship Ecstasy struck a discordant note of cheer. The effect was altogether surreal, the Canal Street area transformed into the set of a Hollywood end-of-days extravaganza: Escape From New Orleans.

As an early introduction into the spicy gumbo of Louisiana-style politics, Allen was scheduled to attend a press briefing in which New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin planned to announce the reopening of the city in just a matter of days, having hardly consulted with federal authorities and far in advance of what most federal safety experts felt was prudent. Before attending the press conference, Allen convened a command briefing in a dockside headquarters trailer dubbed "Red October." The issue at the top of the agenda was the advisability of the mayor's plan.

"Sir, the input I'm getting is that we would first need a viable evacuation plan not only for anyone let back in the city, but also for federal and state workers," said Coast Guard Capt. Tom Atkins, Allen's chief of staff. That's "because a bad thunderstorm -- let alone another hurricane -- might reflood the city again."

Stephen Browning, the director of programs for the Army Corps of Engineers, was even more direct. New Orleans, he noted, had enjoyed nearly two weeks of sunshine after Katrina's passing, and that had greatly helped to evaporate standing waters and reduce the workload on overstressed pumps. Even before a complete assessment of the city's levee system could be completed, however, the Corps concluded that it had been severely weakened by the hurricane.

"We can handle three inches of rain or less, but I want to stress that we are still in hurricane season, and the city's first-line defensive barrier against hurricanes was destroyed by Katrina," said Browning, who reiterated his fears in a brief interview afterward. "The mayor needs to fully understand these risks before he reopens the city."

At a press conference held in downtown New Orleans only blocks from the Superdome, Allen stood beside Nagin as the mayor declared a brand-new day for the city. The "sun was shining" and it was a "good day for New Orleans," Nagin said. "The city is back in business again in terms of the port and airport, and we're bringing back 200,000 citizens to get it going again.... The city of New Orleans, beginning this weekend, can start to breathe again."

Everyone understood that Nagin was under intense pressure from his supporters in the business community to send a positive signal that the city was reopening, but the press conference had most federal authorities shaking their heads in bewilderment. Virtually no official on the ground recognized the "sunshine city" the mayor described. In a last-ditch effort to dissuade Nagin from the reopening plan, Allen and a group of senior officials held a private meeting with him.

According to a source knowledgeable about the meeting, the mayor could not be dissuaded. The outcome pointed once again to the competing political stakes involved for officials at the local, state, and federal levels. "Mayor Nagin just looked at Admiral Allen and the others and said, 'You guys do what you have to do; I'm an entrepreneur, and I take risks,' " the source recalled. "Honestly," the source added, "I can't figure out whether Nagin is brilliant or insane!"

Because the decision was ultimately up to the mayor, Allen had top officials from the Health and Human Services Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Corps of Engineers put their worries in writing, and on Sunday, September 18, he appeared on all the morning news shows to voice them publicly. On Monday, with a new hurricane, Rita, strengthening and heading for the Gulf of Mexico, Nagin reversed himself and said that New Orleans residents could not return home after all.

Hope Returns

When Marine One landed on the Iwo Jima on the late afternoon of September 15, many of the tens of thousands of soldiers, relief workers, government officials, and journalists who were the new denizens of New Orleans waited expectantly for President Bush's address to the nation from the city's historic Jackson Square. Barred from attending the address or asking questions, journalists gathered to watch it on television at the bar of the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, a sort of unofficial press club. Given the carefully scripted nature of the event and the destruction that reporters had witnessed in New Orleans, it was easy to be cynical about the speech. At the Sheraton bar, a photographer from a European press agency was describing a photo he took recently, only a few miles from Jackson Square, of an elderly woman's body that starving dogs had reached ahead of the search-and-retrieval teams.

In the address, Bush declared that the government would do whatever was needed, for as long as was required, to make the city stronger and to rebuild it better than before. "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans," he said, and there were nods around the room. Bush conceded that the effort would likely require one of the largest public works projects the world had ever seen. But when the work was completed, he assured Americans, they would have "something to be proud of." Afterward, an ABC News reporter interviewed a group of New Orleans evacuees living in Houston's Astrodome. Try as he might, the ABC reporter could not get one to express doubt about Bush's promise to resurrect New Orleans. Those with the greatest claim to cynicism had opted for hope instead.

"You have to remember that after Katrina, the people of New Orleans didn't know if they still had jobs or homes. They didn't know if the city itself even had a future," Terry Ebbert, New Orleans's homeland-security chief, said in an interview. A former Marine colonel, Ebbert holds the Navy Cross for valor in combat. "I've led units all my life, and I can tell you from experience that there is only so much you can ask people to endure, if they don't have a goal or something to look forward to," he said. "So it was really important for the citizens of this city to hear that their nation was committed to New Orleans."

The day after the president's address, Allen returned to his headquarters in Baton Rouge to focus on strategic issues. There comes a period of synchronicity in every successful operation when a commander and his staff fall into deep problem-solving mode, when they knock down obstacles almost as fast as they appear, and you could sense that Allen and his growing pack of "dogs that could hunt" had found that battle rhythm.

Already, the Baton Rouge staff was developing a 100-day master plan for the handoff of the Katrina response effort to a Joint Federal and State Recovery Office, a semi-permanent midwife that would likely spend years and as much as $200 billion nurturing the Gulf Coast's rebirth. Barring another hurricane or unforeseen disaster, New Orleans and the surrounding area should get a little better with each new day.

In the meantime, Allen will continue to spend 18-hour days listening to the concerns of the president and of the people left homeless and penniless by Katrina. When a reporter marveled that he found time for each group, Allen recalled getting in trouble as a young boy: He had climbed up some water pipes from the base of River Point Island in San Francisco Bay, where his father was working in a Coast Guard carpenter's shop. At the top of the bluff, he remembers, he saw a beautiful mansion where an admiral lived. Forty years later, Allen had walked through the front door of the mansion as an honored guest, and he looked down the hill and saw the same water pipes he had scaled so long ago.

"You know, that kind of history really grounds you," said Allen. "I think that's why I don't tend to get overawed by people, or overwhelmed by situations. On some level, I figure we're all the same. You just have to remember where you came from."