Always Ready for the Storm
Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, almost didn't take the job that has put him in the spotlight. It was Labor Day weekend 2005, and Allen had just learned from the Department of Homeland Security that he might be asked to serve as the deputy to Michael Brownthe head of the Federal Emergency Management Agencywho was floundering almost a week after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Allen, vacationing on the Virginia shore with his wife, Pam, says they talked it over and were "truly hesitant."
But that feeling wouldn't last long. He was formally asked to be Brown's deputy on Labor Day. By Friday, Brown was shuttled back to Washington, and DHS Chief Michael Chertoff appointed Allen, a gruff-faced, little-known official with a commanding presence, as head of the federal response for the entire Gulf Coast region. "I realized when you get a call to duty, you don't say no," says Allen, who was also inspired by the notion that leadership involves both ability and opportunity. "You can be a quiet, fine leader your whole life," he explains. "But if you ... don't ever act on a massive scale, you could go a whole career without anybody knowing it."
Iwo Jima. Recognition certainly isn't an issue for Allen these days. The 57-year-old coastie-as Coast Guard members are often called-has become the face of the Coast Guard, a service whose rescue teams pulled roughly 33,000 stranded Katrina victims off rooftops and overpasses. Allen and Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré set up their rescue headquarters on the USS Iwo Jima-a Navy ship docked in the New Orleans port-offering a breath of hope a week and a half after the storm. This May, President Bush, citing Allen's "Energizer bunny" work ethic and integrity, appointed Allen head of the Coast Guard, where he'd already served 35 years.
To those who have watched Allen's career, his guardian-angel role was no deviation. As former Coast Guard chief of staff, he led the transition team that merged the agency into DHS in 2003. Heading up East Coast operations in 2001, Allen had organized the sea response to September 11. "I was getting my blood drawn at a physical, of all things, when the first plane hit the north tower," Allen recalls. Within hours of the attack, he'd ordered the large Coast Guard cutters, the ships used primarily for patrolling the high seas, to block the mouths of every major East Coast port. Even though Allen points out the Coast Guard hadn't done that sort of thing before, the ships' practice of inspecting high-threat cargo at sea and escorting suspicious boats to shore in the days after the attacks were precursors for port security operations that continue today.
When he took over the Katrina response, Allen says he relied on a "bias for action," the practice of moving, not endlessly deliberating. Within 24 hours, he and Honoré set up a planning group that would soon meet on the Iwo Jima. Each day, the two would deliver a report on what they hoped to do the next day to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Of course, decisions made quickly can have massive consequences-something Allen had experienced years earlier, in 1999, when he ordered his charges to bring 5-year-old Elián Gonzáles onto U.S. soil after he was told the youngster was hypothermic. Even though the Cuban boy's presence ignited a custody battle, Allen says he never regretted that decision. "You develop a battle rhythm in these moments," he says.
Semper paratus. In many ways, Allen's success stems from the ethos of the Coast Guard, a quasi-military service with the motto semper paratusor "always ready"that is known for providing uncommon authority to its far-flung commanders in the field. Allen was steeped in Coast Guard culture as a young boy moving from city to city: His father, Clyde, had joined the service as an enlisted man at age 16. "Thad has this unique ability to make the ordinary seaman feel like a king," says DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, who says Allen is known as a "highly capable leader" who can "wow a mayor or a president with his intellect" without "losing his common touch."
During a recent visit to the Defense Department's Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., Allen stood in front of a wipe board and took questions from two dozen rank-and-file coasties, comfortably citing details on everything from their TriCare healthcare plan to their chances of promotion.
Allen, a history buff intrigued by the bureaucratic success of Alexander Hamilton-whom he calls "the most successful man to never be president"-is already reimagining the Coast Guard's scope. "I worry every day we're fighting the last battle," says Allen, who is particularly troubled by the thousands of small tugboats and fishing vessels that troll the coasts largely unregulated. He has floated the idea of creating restricted maritime areas, similar to the aviation world's no-fly zones, that would keep small boats potentially laden with explosives away from tempting coastal targets like the 350 chemical plants lining U.S. waterways.
Another ambition: crafting a force of DHS personnel, including the likes of the federal air marshals, customs officers, and the Coast Guard's oil spill response crews, that can be mixed and matched into teams and quickly flown to disasters in Coast Guard C-130 airplanes. "Katrina showed me the potential power [DHS] has," Allen says, "... if only we're unified." Leave it to a true leader to see potential, even in tragedy.
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.