STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And now, let's hear from the man who's been leading the government's response to the spill.
Admiral THAD ALLEN (U.S. Coast Guard): I dont think we were prepared for a deepwater event in the Gulf of Mexico.
INSKEEP: Thad Allen is the National Incident Commander for the Gulf spill. He describes that job as defending the whole Gulf Coast against hundreds of thousands of patches of oil, using outdated laws in some cases and jerry-rigged equipment.
Adm. ALLEN: When we had an uncontrolled well out there and we needed to bring that oil to the surface and take it away in tankers, that infrastructure did not exit in the Gulf of Mexico. And in fact, it had to be brought in pieces from the North Sea and off of Angola, to put together a containment system that finally worked.
INSKEEP: Thad Allen sat down to talk about some of the lessons he thinks the country can learn.
Adm. ALLEN: I think what happened here is that the government does not own the technology to stop the source of the spill. The oil companies themselves are the ones that have access to the well and the means to control it. And it appeared at times that the government didnt have a relevant role. And I think one of the things that we did do that was very good was sending Secretary Chu down - secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize winner - leading the science team that conducted oversight over how BP moved forward with their engineering designs. And I think that was very, very useful.
INSKEEP: Is there any occasion in which a law or a regulation got in your way?
Adm. ALLEN: Yes, there were a couple. After the Exxon Valdez, we mandated that a bunch of pollution equipment be required for vessels or facilities to operate. And it's mandated to be there and on-call in case there's a spill. But to have them move equipment that is(ph) required for standby for operations in case there was a spill there actually required us to change the regulations to allow that equipment to be freed up.
INSKEEP: Well, now, that's an interesting question though. Did you have to leave parts of the coastline, parts of the country, unprotected in effect to drag things into the Gulf for this emergency?
Adm. ALLEN: We didn't leave it unprotected. What we did is we lowered the response requirement and we moved some of it. We still had residual state laws that required standby equipment. In many cases there are liability issues for these companies if the equipment is moved. So this is a very, very complicated issue. It's the first time we've taken it on.
INSKEEP: If somebody were to come to you - which seems entirely plausible -with some other disaster, what is some knowledge you'd want to have or some power you'd want to have or some change you would want to have to be prepared for that?
Adm. ALLEN: I think you're hitting at the real heart of the lessons learned out of this and other things that at least I've been involved in - 9/11, the Haitian response, Hurricane Katrina and Rita. You have to generate unity of effort, 'cause there are overlapping roles(ph), jurisdictions, competencies, authorities. And what you want to do is bring that together and focus it on the effects you're trying to achieve.
I would say that is the single most important common denominator in any emergency response.
INSKEEP: Whenever there has been a disaster in recent years, people have asked the question, well, what does this say about our readiness for another 9/11 or some attack on the country. How do you feel about that?
Adm. ALLEN: Well, I think there are two elements to it. Number one: when we respond to an oil spill, we respond under a statute that empowers us and tells us to do certain things with our funding sources. I think what we're finding out, whether it's a hurricane or an oil spill, there's always going to be a gap between what you're legally allowed to do and what the country expects.
And I think moving forward, if we really wanted to think about it, we need to understand what to do with that government effort that's expected by the public that's not covered by a law.
INSKEEP: I wonder if you would end up saying America is America and this is the way it is and there's separation of powers and it ought to be that way and we just might be a little slower than we'd like to be in responding to some emergencies.
Adm. ALLEN: Well, we are a democracy and that creates certain features of our response that are always going to be that way. I mean, having worked this oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, there are fascinating issues of federalism here and the respective roles of state and local governments and the federal government.
I remember having a conversation with a parish president of Louisiana. I said, there are two things that I cannot do. I can do everything with you, for you, and we can partner, but I cannot give you my federal authority and I cannot waive my fiduciary responsibility for the appropriations. And that authority, at least on the Coast Guard side, is embodied in what we call the captain of the port authority - that's a term of law. And the parish president said, but I want to be the captain of the port. And I said, I'm sorry, you can't.
INSKEEP: It sounds like no matter what happens, I mean, there's going to have to be somebody in charge and it gets back to that question of people being willing to kind of set aside the niceties of who's in charge and just get things done.
Adm. ALLEN: You have to agree on a goal. I will tell you this: we will never have another major event in this country that does not involve a major public participation, whether it's Web-based, social media through non-governmental organizations or faith-based organizations. We have to figure out a way to better integrate all those resources, passion and commitment that exist out there. Because if we don't, they're going to be disaffected and you're going to break down that unity of effort you're trying to achieve.
INSKEEP: Meaning that when you've got 300 million Americans deeply concerned about something, there might be a better, more creative way to involve them in helping.
Adm. ALLEN: Well, you're either going to involve them or they're going to involve themselves. I like to steal President Bush's line in reverse: We need to take a thousand points of light sometimes and make it a laser beam.
INSKEEP: Admiral Thad Allen, thanks very much.
Adm. ALLEN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.