Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Allen: Still on the job

Vice Admiral Allen is still getting great press. On the all-news channels, he's still on nearly every hour or so.

Earlier, I've posted links to various articles about Allen. Here's the best yet.

Standing in a deserted air terminal in the early-morning dark of September 14, America's man of the moment realized that his honeymoon had lasted not quite 24 hours.

The newspapers in Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen's hands all led with criticisms from the Louisiana governor that the federal government was failing to retrieve bodies from the fetid waters that still engulfed New Orleans. The apparent failure to recover the bodies was adding insult and yet another grievance to the many injuries that Louisianans had already suffered.
((Don't be content with only a teaser of this post;
read more of this musing.))
Allen called Blanco and in his reasonable style asked her, "Governor, have I done something to give you the impression that I'm interested in anything else but helping the people of Louisiana?" In truth, Allen had already interceded with a reluctant Pentagon to deploy military mortuary units to New Orleans, and these units even then were engaged in the grim business of retrieving the bodies of Katrina's victims. Although Blanco quickly softened her criticism, the incident was clearly a harbinger of more friction to come.

In times of war or crisis, the nation always looks for a leader to step forward and take charge, and usually that someone is in uniform. In the American pantheon, such men of action are accorded special honor, but potential failure and ignominy beckon as well. Consider Gens. Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell in Operation Desert Storm. Then think of Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam.

Certainly Allen didn't have to be warned about the perils of his new position. He had watched firsthand as his predecessor, FEMA Director Michael Brown, was replaced and publicly humiliated. Allen, an officer known for engendering fierce loyalty in his subordinates, had called a number of the most trusted and competent officers who have worked for him before -- officers his grandfather would have called "dogs that could hunt." Some on his newly assembled team warned Allen that he was taking on a nearly impossible task from a very exposed position -- the admiral was becoming the most recognizable face in a disaster of historic proportions.
Well, he and Honore, anyway... And, as to those "dogs that could hunt," they've been with the Admiral almost everywhere he goes.

Allen knows a bit about planning for the short and the long term. He's done it with the Coast Guard, and he's doing it now with Hurricane response and recovery.
When asked about his plan for addressing the short- and long-term objectives in the Katrina recovery effort, Allen said that in his experience, strategic plans were shelved about the time a date was stamped on them. He was more interested in communicating a clear strategic intent so that everyone involved in what was already a massive effort could swim in generally the same direction, like a large school of fish that instinctively turned at the same moment.

The first guiding principle would be to treat all of Katrina's many victims like family. In terms of strategic intent, Allen drew a simple pyramid. At the bottom, he scribbled in the Superdome, a symbol of the botched rescue effort. At the top, he wrote "New Orleans 2.0," representing the ultimate vision of a future Big Easy resurrected from the foul waters. As you moved up the pyramid, Allen explained, the focus shifted from disaster response to recovery, and the objectives changed based loosely on psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs."

"If you are drowning, the first thing you want is dry land," Allen said. "If you are on dry land, the next thing you want is something to eat and drink. Having eaten, you want a place to sleep, and then you want a better place to sleep. Then you want aid to start rebuilding and getting your life back in order."
Truer words haven't been spoken in a long while.

Here's an interesting bit: Allen has been ensuring that he hears everyone: the president, the mayor, those who are homeless...
When a reporter marveled that he found time for each group, Allen recalled getting in trouble as a young boy: He had climbed up some water pipes from the base of River Point Island in San Francisco Bay, where his father was working in a Coast Guard carpenter's shop. At the top of the bluff, he remembers, he saw a beautiful mansion where an admiral lived. Forty years later, Allen had walked through the front door of the mansion as an honored guest, and he looked down the hill and saw the same water pipes he had scaled so long ago.

"You know, that kind of history really grounds you," said Allen. "I think that's why I don't tend to get overawed by people, or overwhelmed by situations. On some level, I figure we're all the same. You just have to remember where you came from."
Rumor on the watch floor is that Allen is looking to pass the PFO responsibilities off to someone, soon. Perhaps the PFO job will go Scott Wells, the chief FEMA representative in New Orleans. That'll be too bad, losing all that good talk time on the big screen from our man in blue.

There's a bit that says the PFO staff is looking to be out of business by mid-December. The staff is
developing a 100-day master plan for the handoff of the Katrina response effort to a Joint Federal and State Recovery Office, a semi-permanent midwife that would likely spend years and as much as $200 billion nurturing the Gulf Coast's rebirth. Barring another hurricane or unforeseen disaster, New Orleans and the surrounding area should get a little better with each new day.
There's a job: being a part of the JFSRO. I figure that's worth a decade of employment.

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