Admiral Coordinating New Orleans Recovery

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Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen talks about his appointment to direct recovery efforts in and around New Orleans. The admiral began reporting Monday to FEMA chief Michael Brown, whose agency has been widely criticized for a sluggish response to the disaster.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Blame still dogs federal officials for the slow rescue and recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina. This week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff responded to that criticism by appointing Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen to direct work in and around New Orleans. We reached the admiral barely a day into his new job in a command center trailer.

Vice Admiral THAD ALLEN (USCG): Good morning, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Why were you brought in?

Vice Adm. ALLEN: I was asked to come out to the area impacted by Hurricane Katrina to assist Mike Brown, the principal federal officer, to provide focus for the area in New Orleans and the parishes around New Orleans because of the extensive damage and to create a unity of effort between state, local, federal and DOD resources here.

MONTAGNE: As you well know, there have been lots of stories this past week about what FEMA has done incorrectly, wrong here. Let me just ask you about a couple of them. The president of Jefferson Parish down outside New Orleans has said that Wal-Mart tried to deliver trailer trucks of water; FEMA turned them back. A thousand gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel was docked in Jefferson Parish, and the parish got the word FEMA says don't give you the fuel. That's just two things. Has FEMA been able to track these down and come up with answers as to if and why it happened?

Vice Adm. ALLEN: Renee, let me clarify where I'm coming into the picture here and tell you what I know. First of all, I've been on ground here about 24 hours. As far as I know, there are no current issues with distribution of water or food in the local area. There may have been problems at the outset, but I believe all of that has been stabilized.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, fine, then. What are you doing differently? It sounds like you're trying to really cut to the quick. What are you figuring out and how are you doing it?

Vice Adm. ALLEN: Well, my main purpose is to have a very local attention on the things that need to be done. As we know, there was a significant amount of search and rescue done, and after that, making sure the people who have been evacuated are being cared for. That is somewhat stabilizing right now.

There are a lot of other needs that the city has and I'm here focusing on that. I've had several meetings over the last day with the director of homeland security for the city of New Orleans, who directs the police department, the fire department, emergency services. And we're looking at things like how to sustain the fire department and the police force, which has been under a tremendous amount of stress here, how to sustain the pumping operations, working with the Corps of Engineers, looking at temporary housing for the workers that are here and basically giving action to the policies we want to invoke down here to make sure we minimize the impact of this event and take care of our people.

MONTAGNE: What is your situation? Do you have to cut through any sort of red tape to make this happen, or are you the red tape?

Vice Adm. ALLEN: Well, I would hope that by putting the presence of a deputy principal federal officer right into New Orleans that rather than having to reach back through several echelons and layers of government, that you can bring solutions to bear in a more timely manner, and that's what I'm about here.

MONTAGNE: I understand that FEMA is responsible for counting the dead. Of course, we're hearing numbers that range from--well, up to 20,000. At this moment in time, is there any reason to think that number is based in any firm information?

Vice Adm. ALLEN: That's a terrific question, Renee, and it's one that's problematic for all of us right now, but I don't think any responsible person involved in this response would want to hazard a guess at this point.

MONTAGNE: It appears that you're making things happen quite quickly. I'm just wondering: Why wasn't this being done a week, a week and a half ago?

Vice Adm. ALLEN: Well, Renee, I wouldn't want to hazard a guess on that. There are a lot of things that come together in an event like this. It's extraordinary. It hasn't happened in the history of the country. My goal right now is to get on scene, look at the situation that I'm dealing with and make something happen as fast as I can.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Vice Adm. ALLEN: I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen in New Orleans.

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