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Commander familiar with tough missions

In spill battle, Thad Allen brings Katrina experience.

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 with the mustache wearing a green flight suit at the head of a horseshoe of tables.

The spill-response workers in attendance had watched cable news belittle their battle against the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Now, the commander in the fight, the man in the flight suit, warned his troops 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 them, treat them like a sister or brother.

A place on the menu

It is a philosophy that has won Allen wide acclaim, including a spot on the menu in a New Orleans institution. Now, it will either carry him to a career-capping triumph or tarnish his legacy and, perhaps, the president's.

Allen, 61, who just stepped down as Coast Guard commandant and is scheduled to retire from the service July 1, is tackling his greatest challenge in 39 years of national service: attempting to gain control of a disaster that defies control.

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 have problems, "they need to talk to Thad Allen."

Now, when cameras focus on the disaster's daily update, they zoom in on Allen, who, as national incident commander, is the face of the Obama administration's effort to show it is in charge.

His 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, plays the chief villain.

Looking for an update last week, Allen picked up his BlackBerry. "I'll call Tony Hayward and ask him what's up," he said.

The call went to voice mail. "Hey, Tony, this is Thad," he 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 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 works closely with him on spill response.

Even so, as local officials and cable-news commentators frustrated by the futility of efforts to cap the leak increasingly attack the administration, Allen jokes: "I'm unsuccessfully trying to get fired."

In the spring of 2002, federal and state officials set up shop in New Orleans for a training exercise that now seems prescient.

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

The exercise revealed weaknesses in the federal government's response capabilities, including bureaucratic hurdles to deploying oil dispersants and burning off slicks.

Allen was Coast Guard chief of staff in 2005 when, a week after Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf, President George W. Bush tapped him 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 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 Mother's reopened. He ordered debris (shredded beef) and grits. The story is immortalized now on the restaurant's menu.

Allen drew a similar reception last August in Nome, Alaska, where, as Coast Guard commandant, he led a group of administration officials investigating the effects of climate change in the Arctic. He 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.

The Arctic issue was shaping up as a capstone for Allen's career. Then the Deepwater Horizon sank.

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 failure in Katrina, he said. It reacted as if to a normal hurricane.

With the oil spill, Allen's model is an unprecedented 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 Allen's model, calls to "federalize" the spill response and kick BP out simply don't make sense.

"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."

'Getting killed'

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

Supplies weren't coming quickly enough. Boom was 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 them said.

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 salespeople.

A little later, he walked out to brief reporters. Someone asked what message he wanted to give Louisiana residents. "I'm responsible for the response," Allen said, "and I'm here."