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The country needs an "agile and flexible" government to respond to disasters such as the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, says the man in charge of both of the response efforts.
"The more we can create that unity of effort, the better off we'll be," said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, national incident commander for the Gulf oil spill response, in an interview with The Day.
The problem is, Allen said, it is not easy to get officials in federal, state and local governments to work together, along with players in the private sector and non-governmental organizations. They are organized differently, with diverse responsibilities, jurisdictions and viewpoints.
"Even though it isn't easy," Allen said, "we have to get better at it."
Allen said he thinks social media and the Internet can link the parties together to solve seemingly impossible problems.
Five years ago, Allen directed the response operations in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the region. He was credited by many with turning around a recovery effort that was initially botched by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And he was chosen as the 23rd commandant of the Coast Guard soon afterward.
Allen returned to the Gulf near the end of his four-year tour as commandant to oversee the response to the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
The April 20 explosion aboard Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig working on a well for the oil company British Petroleum, sent nearly 5 million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf. Allen said his role is to "recover the oil, stop it at the source, and deal with it" and to "create the conditions for success for the long-term recovery."
"The best thing I can do for this country is to focus on this job and getting it done. It is a capstone event in my life, and career, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of it," Allen said, adding that many people have capabilities the country can use and never get the chance to help.
President Obama asked Allen to continue his service to the country by continuing to oversee the response even after he officially retired from the Coast Guard.
Congress gave the president the authority to designate a national incident commander for an oil spill of national significance after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The Gulf spill was the first time the president needed to use that authority.
On Wednesday, Allen was focused on retrieving pieces of drill pipe inside the failed blowout preventer, a device designed to prevent oil from spilling. The pipes have to be removed before the structure can be replaced and the well permanently sealed.
Allen works with many parties, from the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Interior and Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency to state and local governments in the affected states and BP.
Many private-vessel operators also rushed to the Gulf to help in the initial days of the spill. Federal agencies teamed up to develop a new online tool to answer questions and provide everyone with near real-time information, www.geoplatform.gov/gulfresponse.
"We will never have a large event in the future that won't involve public participation," Allen said, so it is important to use the Internet, social media and the press "to incorporate people who show up with passion, resources and commitment but with no access."
Giving everyone access to the same information creates that "unity of effort and common shared goals," he added.
Allen expects to finish the job around Oct. 1, pending Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus giving the president a report on the long-term revitalization of the Gulf Coast. He said a "follow-on governance structure" for the recovery needs to be identified and a leader chosen.
"Then I submit a transition plan, and I think that can be done around October first based on the conditions that have to be met," he said. "But it's not a hard and fast date."
The stress of a job like this may make some people want to pull out their hair, but Allen jokes that he has "the upper hand."
"I don't have any hair," he said.
Allen said that capping the spill, releasing the first turtles back into the wild in Florida and getting people back to work in the fishing industry "makes you feel pretty good."
Allen played football at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and graduated in 1971. He later returned to the area to serve as the captain of the port for Long Island Sound. He aid he still feels an affinity for the region and said he will be "paying close attention" to the academy football team this year.