The oil spoiling the teeming marshes and white-sand beaches of the Gulf Coast is also threatening the pristine image of the burly, take-charge leader who has become the federal government's go-to guy in a disaster.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, one of the few federal officials whose reputation survived Hurricane Katrina intact, is facing growing criticism that he and his agency are overwhelmed by the catastrophe. It's unfamiliar territory for a former Coast Guard Academy football captain who has managed responses to crises that include the earthquake in Haiti, Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It's very discombobulated and disorganized," Orange Beach, Ala., Mayor Tony Kennon said of the federal response after tar balls stained the beach and entered Perdido Bay this week, without protection from booms. "They had five weeks to get ready for this, and it still happened."
Back in 2005, most leaders in the Gulf had kinder words for Allen's operations after then-President George W. Bush tapped him to take over the widely panned Hurricane Katrina response initially led by former FEMA Director Michael Brown.
Allen was credited with turning the effort around. And when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, the White House was so confident it had the right man to lead the response that it persuaded Allen to delay his planned May retirement.
Allen, 61, who relinquished his role as head of the Coast Guard but is staying on as the spill's national incident commander, has since become the public face of the government's efforts. The Obama administration is increasingly relying on him in White House press briefings and elsewhere to try to assure the public that the government is in charge. Briefing reporters this week, Allen came off cool, calm and confident.
But just as Katrina brought unforeseen challenges, the oil spill has proved unprecedented and unwieldy. Allen is taking his lumps.
Early on, the Coast Guard was widely viewed as giving BP too much control on the scene, effectively looking the other way when the company offered misleadingly rosy assessments. Allen, for example, went along for weeks with BP's insistence that measuring the amount of oil spewing from the well was unimportant, only later pressing for accurate figures after scientists complained that it could help officials plan for containing the mess and account for liability.
There's also the Katrina-like gap between what federal officials say is happening and what local leaders say they are seeing. Since the beginning, Allen has insisted the government and BP deployed more resources than needed. That is consistently disputed by local and state officials who complain of poor coordination, shortages of boom and skimmers, agonizing delays in getting responses to requests and a general reluctance to try new or experimental cleanup strategies.
While BP has taken the brunt of it, much of the criticism also is falling on Allen, the son of a Coast Guard man who rose through the ranks to become the 23rd commandant of the agency in 2006.
"I have spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil," Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said. "We've got to find someone to put in charge who has the guts and the will to make some decisions."
Nungesser's parish includes the Louisiana marshes first hit by oil a month ago where recently pelicans were found coated with thick oil.
David Camardelle, mayor of Grand Isle, La., said he meets daily with state and federal officials but that when he brings up a problem or offers a solution he's told "BP or EPA, or the Coast Guard is going to have to approve this before we can do anything."
"How can we accept that when our lives depend on their action," Camardelle asked, testifying Thursday before a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee.
During briefings with reporters, Allen has noted the frustration of dealing with a spill across the Gulf. He frequently points to the number of fishermen and shrimpers who have been enlisted into the response — the "vessels of opportunity" as he has dubbed the private armada.
But this strategy too has come under fire.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said many of the fishermen in her state "don't think it's working."
And Camardelle complained that shrimpers in his community who sign up for the program "are being sent off on ships where they find no oil (and) ... they want to return and help protect their communities." At other times they were "ready to go but just waited at the docks for the call," he told lawmakers.
Unfailingly polite in public, Allen takes criticism in stride.
Though born in the desert — in Tucson, Ariz. — he's been around the water all his life, moving from post to post as a Coast Guard brat and, later, for his own career. He worked on his first oil spill 20 years ago as a lieutenant when a barge ran aground near Atlantic City, N.J. He says responding is like fighting a battle: The trick is moving resources quickly to where they're needed.
Within the Coast Guard — which itself captures the public's imagination with its rescue swimmers, drug busts on the high seas and missions to save stranded fishermen — Allen is widely admired. On the Gulf, there's little doubt who's in charge when Allen's around.
He has broad authority from the White House to make decisions and can pick up the phone and call BP CEO Tony Hayward when he needs answers. Like the president, Allen in recent days has shown more impatience with BP, writing Hayward a terse letter this week demanding more information about how the company is settling claims.
Last week, preparing for a potentially contentious meeting with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, Allen sat at a conference table with Coast Guard officers and picked apart a planned presentation addressing Riley's complaints about protective boom being moved from Alabama to other states.
"Guys, we have to be exact with this," Allen said, gesturing with one hand as he drank coffee with the other. "One misstatement and the meeting goes south. We have to be transparent. Transparency! Clarity!"
When inventory numbers on the amount of boom available in Alabama didn't add up, Allen had had enough. He got up, grabbed an easel and a marker and began writing. The numbers got straightened out to his satisfaction just before Riley walked into the room.
The problem appears to have been resolved, but Riley made clear his lingering frustration with Allen in a statement this week in which he credited the president for fixing it.
"I want to thank the president for his personal intervention with the Coast Guard," the governor said. "Boom that was deployed here in Alabama should never have been taken from us in the first place."
Briefing reporters before meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, Allen acknowledged that the Coast Guard never anticipated something like the BP gusher.
Even though the agency ran a Gulf Coast response drill in 2002 simulating a blown wellhead — with Allen playing the role of incident commander — Allen said the expectation is for a single oil slick contained in a specific area. The Deepwater Horizon spill, he said, is taxing resources because the oil is breaking up and being pushed by winds and currents in all different directions. He acknowledged that the disaster will likely change the way the country plans for spills.
"We're trying to adapt and learn from a spill that's never happened before in this country," he said.
While early reviews have been mixed at best, the final verdict on Allen's performance is still out.
"We've lost some battles (but) we can win this war," Nungesser said. "But it's got to happen quickly."
Allen doesn't have much time to turn the tide. He still plans to retire July 1, although he acknowledges he might not be able to take off the uniform that quickly.
"I didn't anticipate this would happen to end my career, but I'm honored to have been asked to do this," he told reporters Monday. "It's not a very easy job ... It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to deal with."
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Mobile, Ala., Holbrook Mohr in Venice, La., and Greg Bluestein in Grand Isle, La., contributed to this report.
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