Every few years, government officials gather to prepare for the unthinkable. Back in April 2002, the Coast Guard held one such exercise, a three-day summit at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. It was designed to simulate a response to an oil spill of "national significance." The catalyst? A hypothetical explosion on an ExxonMobil platform off the coast of Morgan City, La., that sent 126,000 gal. of crude gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The man in charge was a Coast Guard vice admiral named Thad Allen. Sitting in the center of a horseshoe of tables, Allen cycled through possible response scenarios, soliciting opposing viewpoints and displaying "confident, positive leadership," says Michael Drieu, the retired Coast Guard commander who coordinated the exercise.
Eight years later, Admiral Allen is in charge again, but this is no drill. As national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Allen who retired from the Coast Guard on June 30 is the point man for the government's response to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. If BP has cut a callous figure and President Barack Obama sometimes struggles to calibrate his outrage, Allen's candor and competence have brought an aura of calm to the crisis. Bald and burly, with a clipped delivery and your grandfather's mustache, he seems straight out of Central Casting, the military lifer who seems to devour briefing books whole. "I don't know that there's anybody out there who knows more [about this] than he does," says Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change. "You give him a problem, he solves it."
Solutions to this problem, however, have so far been in short supply. BP's managing director, Bob Dudley, told the Wall Street Journal on July 7 that the company had an outside shot at plugging the well by the end of the month, but the battle to stop the spill has been riddled with setbacks from a robotic submersible dislodging the well's containment cap to the steady upward revisions of the scope of the damage. Wary of missing more deadlines, Allen demanded that BP provide a detailed outline of its plans to stop the slick. He is still hewing to the mid-August timetable he's cited for weeks. "The order of magnitude" of the disaster, he told TIME last month, "dwarfs anything we've seen before."
Over the past decade, Allen, 61, has been one of the federal government's go-to fixers in times of tragedy. In the frenzied wake of Sept. 11 he was tasked with tightening port security along the eastern seaboard. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) fumbled the response to Hurricane Katrina, Allen was dispatched to New Orleans to resuscitate the rescue effort. After the Haiti earthquake in January, Allen was the commandant leading the response. "When the clarion call comes," says Admiral James Loy, Allen's former boss, "he's a guy who tries with every bone in his body to rise to the occasion."
When Allen is at home in Washington, he works out of a small office at the Department of Homeland Security. After plowing through progress reports from the affected states and the site of the spill, he sometimes sits in on the governors' conference call or meets with the heads of other government agencies. Allen files many of these meetings under the rubric of "establishing unity of purpose," an example of the bureaucratic patois phrases like "stovepipe organization" or "horizontal integration" peppering his paragraphs. At some point he also briefs the media, whose search to assign blame for the flaws in the response has sometimes zeroed in on Allen himself. And then? "Then we start all over again the next day," Allen says.
In some ways Allen has been training for the job his whole life. Born in Tucson, Ariz., he was a military brat who was uprooted frequently to follow his father, a Coast Guard vet who rose to the rank of chief petty officer. Thad was driven and brainy, earning master's degrees from George Washington University and MIT after graduating from the Coast Guard Academy, and he inherited from his dad both an attachment to the organization and an appreciation for the lifestyle that attends it. "For me it was a draw," Allen says of his peripatetic career, during which he has lived in 47 different places. By 2006 Allen was tapped to become commandant, the Coast Guard's top post. Though his four-year stint ended in May, he agreed to stay on as national incident commander for the spill, a role in which he reports to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Obama.