Chief of New Orleans relief tapped to lead Coast Guard

Nominee has been praised for his handling of relief operations along the Gulf Coast.

President Bush on Thursday nominated Vice Adm. Thad Allen to lead the Coast Guard after Commandant Adm. Thomas Collins retires in May.

Allen has been widely praised for his management of federal relief operations along the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast after he was designated the principal federal official in charge in September, following the ouster of Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Allen, who oversees general management functions as the Coast Guard's chief of staff, was previously commander of the agency's Atlantic Area, a region spanning over 14 million square miles. In that position, he led the Coast Guard's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Allen, a 1971 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., would assume command of the agency during a critical period. The Coast Guard is grappling with a substantial growth in its mission, especially regarding port security, and it's in the midst of executing the most significant modernization program in its history. The 25-year program - known as Deepwater and estimated to cost at least $18 billion -- started in 1996 and is aimed at revamping the agency's aging fleet of cutters, patrol boats and aircraft.

Uncertainties over funding have long troubled the Coast Guard and the Deepwater program in particular. The agency is increasingly hurt by rising fuel costs and an aging fleet that becomes ever more expensive to maintain, a trend that increasingly threatens long-term planning.

Few agencies have the breadth of mission of the Coast Guard, which is both a military service as well as a civilian maritime agency. According to agency statistics, in an average day, Coast Guard personnel save 15 lives, conduct 90 search and rescue cases, seize 662 pounds of cocaine, respond to 11 oil and hazardous chemical spills, monitor 2,557 commercial ships traveling through U.S. ports and board hundreds of vessels suspected of illegal activity or to conduct safety checks.