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Profile: Thad Allen, FEMA's Katrina Point Man

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Profile: Thad Allen, FEMA's Katrina Point Man

Katrina & Beyond

Profile: Thad Allen, FEMA's Katrina Point Man

Profile: Thad Allen, FEMA's Katrina Point Man

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Vice Admiral Thad Allen, chief of staff of the U.S. Coast Guard, is now in charge of rescue and recovery in and around New Orleans. Libby Lewis profiles the man who replaced FEMA director Michael Brown as the point man giving orders on the scene.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

More now on the FEMA leadership of Hurricane Katrina relief effort. As President Bush today surveyed the damage in New Orleans for himself, he got a briefing from the administration's new local coordinator of FEMA's response; that's Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen. He replaced Michael Brown, whose resignation we noted. Here's NPR's Libby Lewis on the man now in charge of relief operations.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

In a way, Vice Admiral Thad Allen's job is to lead New Orleans and the federal government out of the muck. Even before he was tapped to take over the entire Katrina effort, Allen grasped the scope of the job ahead, on the ground and with the public. He spoke to NPR 24 hours after he got to New Orleans.

Vice Admiral THAD ALLEN (Coast Guard): It's extraordinary. It hasn't happened in the history of the country. My goal right now is to get on scene to look at the situation that I'm dealing with and make something happen as fast as I can.

LEWIS: That's no surprise to some people who know him. But here's the skinny on Thad Allen that you won't get from official channels.

Chief Petty Officer CLYDE ALLEN (Retired; Thad Allen's Father): He enjoys music and he is not a bad musician. He plays several instruments.

LEWIS: That's Clyde Allen, his father. He says his son is a huge Miami Dolphins fan. Those who know him say he likes Waylon Jennings and Caribbean steel drums. And even though the Coast Guard provides him with a cook, Allen is likely to be in the kitchen alongside the cook.

His official bio is a little better known. Allen is 56, and he's been in the Coast Guard since he graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1971. He led the Coast Guard's response to the September 11th terrorist attacks along the Eastern seaboard. In response, he was promoted to chief of staff, number three in the chain of command. In a Coast Guard oral history of the 9/11 attacks, Allen said he hadn't acted any differently before or after the attacks. `I'm me, I'm me, I'm me,' he said. `You know, I'm Popeye. I am what I am.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

CPO ALLEN: That's...

Mrs. WILMA ALLEN (Thad Allen's Mother): That's right.

CPO ALLEN: That's a very good description of him.

LEWIS: That's Clyde Allen again, with his wife, Wilma. Clyde Allen is 80. He's a retired chief petty officer in the Coast Guard and a veteran of World War II. Wilma Allen is 78, and they live in Tucson.

CPO ALLEN: When he was small and--some of the ships I was on, he'd go aboard, he even stayed overnight on some of them. So he was aware of the life that I had as an enlisted man.

LEWIS: That stayed with him, his parents say.

Mrs. ALLEN: No matter who he's with, though, he fits right in.

CPO ALLEN: And being an admiral, most of the services, they don't associate too much with enlisted men. He is happy and his associating with the enlisted men is--might even be more than that of the officers.

LEWIS: Lieutenant Commander Dana Reid heads the Coast Guard's operations in Chincoteague, Virginia. She was Allen's aide for a year in 2000, and he's been her mentor ever since. Reid says Allen has a gift for reading people quickly and for drawing out their individual strengths to get things done. She says the government picked the right man for this job.

Lieutenant Commander DANA REID (Coast Guard): He brings out the best in people, especially in times of crisis. He's a steady force in turbulent times, and that's the best way to describe him. He's the person you want leading the team when things go badly.

LEWIS: Those are soothing words for an administration that has drawn such criticism for its response to Katrina. Allen's parents and those who know him say the rest of the country will find out what they already know: that Thad Allen won't disappoint. Libby Lewis, NPR News.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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