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26 Maritime Professional 1Q 2011

Orleans involved natural disasters, and if folks were unhappy with immediate results of the response, there wasn’t much

Allen could do about that. Deepwater was different. Creating a better ‘unity of effort’ there also entailed reducing the level of animosity being directed at BP. Allen explains, “You almost have to detach yourself from what caused it, focus on be impactful, and move on. If you simply can’t forgive who- ever is involved from a causation standpoint, then you should not be part of the response. They’ll have their day in court. A good analogy is when someone is hit by a car. You may be upset at the driver, but that’s not consequential to saving the patient. I keep my people away from the emotions of the sit- uation. Let’s fix the problem.”


Thad Allen believes in OPA-90 – with caveats. He begins the Deepwater discussion by saying, “There was a real lack of understanding in the senior levels of government about the national contingency plan, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and how it was supposed to be carried out. I had a lot of concern about the lack of understanding of what a responsible party was and what it should do.” Eventually, Allen’s worst fears were realized when the Deepwater disaster brought all of this boiling to the surface.

Because the spill was so large and so closely covered by the 24-hour news cycle, establishing the relationship with the responsible party to create ‘unity of effort’ was nearly impos- sible. The confluence of the President’s moratorium on drilling, statements by senior political leaders about BP and what Allen coins “the social-political rejection of the notion that the responsible party could be effectively involved in the response” hampered an effective response effort. And, as more people questioned BP’s role, the discussion distracted all parties from the spill response itself.

Allen is clear on why OPA-90 is the way to go: By law, there is federal preemption in oil spill response by the feder- al government. He adds, “It is that way for several reasons.

This oil well was not in state waters and the oil - agnostic to state boundaries – potentially impacted five states. Finally,

OPA-90 is a public policy decision made into law, statute and regulation. The responsible party is accountable and he brings contracted resources to combat the problem. We have done that for 20 years and it has worked remarkably well.”


Homeland Security Directive 5 is the policy document that supports response to a non-DoD event. The document desig- nates the DHS Secretary as principal federal official, but the capacity and capability to carry that directive out does not yet exist in an organization that is still growing and maturing.

Sadly, DHS has never had the luxury of trying to build its own institution. Subject to huge amounts of oversight and scrutiny from the outset, there was zero tolerance for failure.

Allen adds, “That’s where we are focused going forward – growing the capacity inside the department.” Once the new

DHS federal building and a single, unified, national response center is completed, institutionalizing national crisis manage- ment and disaster response will be that much easier. In the meantime, there’s a lot of hard work to do.

Allen’s neatly sums up his vision by saying, “Horizontally and vertically, across the breadth and depth of the federal and state governments, we need to reinforce the value of the

National Incident Management System (NIMS) and incident command structure. Our success in New Orleans – once we got organized – was due to that doctrine. The same holds true for Port au Prince and oil spill response. Above all, create sit- uational awareness through a common operational picture.”


Allen’s new gig affords him access to resources and dia- logue with like-minded experts. He remains busy putting together what he describes as “reflections of working inside two Administrations, across two large events and 40 years of working responses. Sooner or later, you see common threads running across these things.” He remains focused on creating a planning and coordination standard operating procedure outside the DoD, that works across all sectors of government. “Sooner or later, we’ve got to do that,” he insists.

Allen’s approach is quite simple: “I think it is time – to use a nautical metaphor – to take a round turn on how we react to a crisis in government. We should be beyond the point now where we shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time something happens. We describe it as an anomalous asym- metrical event and I’ve used those words myself. We’ve got to get better at operational planning and coordination across the U.S. government.” Indeed. And, who better to lead the charge than Allen?

Editor’s note: Retired U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad

Allen is now a Senior Fellow with the Rand Corporation. He remains focused on shaping policy and solving problems based on 40 years of federal service and leadership. He pro- vided his insights on crisis management to Maritime

Professional in December 2010.

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