Outgoing Katrina Recovery Chief Speaks

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ERIC GRIGORIAN / POLARIS

Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen prepares to leave his Katrina assignment

Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen arrived in New Orleans four months ago to take over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Now he's back in Washington, D.C., telling federal officials what he's learned. His assignment ends this month. TIME's Amanda Ripley met with Allen at the Department of Homeland Security for an exit interview.

TIME: Why are you leaving now?

Admiral Allen: In the life cycle of an event like this, you have to shift from incident response to recovery—the really tough work of saying, Are we going to rebuild? How are we going to rebuild? The work becomes more long-term.

While you were home for the holidays, what did you tell your relatives about what's happening on the Gulf Coast?

When people ask me about what's going on down there, the first thing I try to do is tell them how big and complex this event has been. We're not talking about a 100-year storm, we're talking about a 1,000-year storm. I don't think it's well understood unless you've actually been down there.

You said many times that your top three priorities were “housing, housing and housing.” Today we've got about 40,000 evacuees still living in hotel rooms. In Mississippi, hundreds of people are living in tents. Were you successful?

Well, I think we were successful given the resources we had. The requirements of this event dwarfed anything that was planned for. It's not just the Federal government. It's whether you have enough qualified inspectors for all the electrical work that's being done, whether you have enough store clerks.

We're up to 500 trailers a day being deployed in Louisiana. We're getting close to our goal in Mississippi. The real problem is that you have so much housing that's been removed. Not everybody can fit back into New Orleans.

You said when you were down there that you were a long way from the Coast Guard Academy.

I still am.

What was the hardest skill set to learn?

I had to get knowledgeable right away on the inner workings of the Disaster Relief Fund and the Stafford Act (the law under which FEMA operates). It's very technical, a lot of arcane issues, and it's played out in very emotional issues like what can be paid for and what can't.

How did you do that?

I read it. I stayed up late at night reading (laughing).

You walked into a fairly loaded situation but somehow didn't become a lightning rod for criticism. Why is that?

Well, I tried to be transparent. And to make people aware of the constraints we were under. The basic parameters of this response were set before I got there: the city had already been flooded, there were certain contracts that had [already] been awarded. My goal was to take what we were doing and make it as efficient as we possibly could. You can't let the conditions that were set before you got there rent space in your head.

Was there a moment before you left when you felt a flash of optimism about the future of New Orleans?

Actually, my flash of optimism came after reading Rising Tide [John Barry's book about the Mississippi flood of 1927]. Have you read it? I had a sense that if you didn't have New Orleans, you'd have to create one. Because of the requirements of commerce, where it's at on the river and so forth. So it's not a question of whether New Orleans comes back, it's how New Orleans comes back.

Do you think all parts of New Orleans should be rebuilt?

Absolute local decision. I wouldn't want to give Mayor Nagin the opportunity to say I was the federal mayor of New Orleans twice (laughing).

Are there any misconceptions that have taken hold about Katrina that you'd like to debunk?

Yeah, this is a personal opinion. We need to [consider] what the public perceives FEMA's role should have been and what statutorily FEMA's role is. Their protocol for a disaster is that locals go to the states, states go to the Federal government, and they bring resources in. When we hit that tipping point and the city flooded, it was not within FEMA's mission, capabilities or competency to go out and direct actual rescue operations. The Coast Guard came in and did it because we're trained to do that. And whatever issues there are with FEMA as an organization, I hope the public does not generalize to a larger responsibility for FEMA. No matter what anybody's issue is, there's a tendency to say the problem is FEMA. I don't think that's true.

There's a personal accountability issue here. Absent something like a flood where you're actually forced out of your house I don't think it's unreasonable to think that folk should be able to last [on their own] for maybe 48, 72 hours. If you run a nursing home that is six floors high in an area with 90% humidity and 90 degrees, [should] you have an emergency generator that only lasts 10 hours? I mean, have we come to the state in this country where all of a sudden the absence of electricity is a disaster?

If you had to choose one thing we absolutely must change before another major catastrophe, what would it be?

We need to create a clear command and control structure that runs from the federal government to the state—equivalent to the chain of command that's very clear on the DOD [Department of Defense] side.

If we had another disaster take out a city next week, would the federal response be better?

I think so. We now know what we will face if, say, a large city has a chemical weapon used on it and a million people are displaced. You want to know where those people are going, what their identities are, how can you help them. I think that will be intuitive in the next response. But it depends on how much time goes by between now and then.

If you were called up to go down to this hypothetical disaster, what would you do differently?

I'd like to be there before the event starts.

Is there anything you'll miss?

Well, you never want to leave a mission like this, when you've been so involved for such a long time. There is a certain anxiety in disassociating ourselves. As we were starting to move people out in December, there was no small amount of tears among the staff.

Will you go back to the job you had before?

I'm chief of staff of the Coast Guard, and they'd like to have me back. This has probably been the longest absence of a standing chief of staff in the organization's history. And they've done well without me, but you like to know that you're needed.