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The Accidental Admiral


Allen: Honored by the Senate.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

His career may be defined by his role as the government’s point man on last year’s BP oil spill, but retired Adm. Thad Allen’s four decades in the Coast Guard could fill a book with many dramatic chapters.

Just before his appointment as national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began in April 2010, Allen had led the Coast Guard’s response to three other major disasters: hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.


Between the disasters, Allen spent four years as Coast Guard commandant and oversaw one of the biggest reorganizations in the military branch’s 221-year history. The series of consolidations, realignments, and modernization efforts is Allen’s pride and joy, he said in an interview last week.

“Long-term, I would rather be known for the reorganization,” rather than for work on Katrina and the BP spill, he said.

The Senate grasped the full scope of Allen’s career in a resolution paying him tribute that was passed by unanimous consent on June 30.


“Whereas Admiral Allen demonstrated the vision and transformational leadership that will provide the United States with a Coast Guard that is not only capable of meeting and exceeding the ever-changing maritime challenges of the United States, but also able to better anticipate future challenges and missions,” the resolution states, “… the Senate recognizes and honors Admiral Thad Allen of the United States Coast Guard (retired), on behalf of a grateful nation.”

Allen, 62, grew up in Tucson, Ariz., and followed his father’s footsteps into the Coast Guard. (“My father lied about his age and joined at age 16,” Allen said.) Right after high school, Allen headed for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., where he starred on the football team and graduated in 1971.

Then began a 39-year rise through the ranks that took Allen to Thailand—for one of the last Coast Guard operations of the Vietnam War—and later to Miami and Portsmouth, Va. He held command positions on the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

After leading the Coast Guard’s response to the September 11 attacks in the eastern half of the nation, Allen was appointed chief of staff at Coast Guard headquarters in May 2002. Four years later, he was named commandant by President George W. Bush. He retired from the Coast Guard a month after his four-year term expired in May 2010, but Allen stayed on as head of the oil-spill cleanup at President Obama’s request.


The federal responses to the Gulf hurricanes and the BP spill were two different types of dramas, Allen said.

“Katrina was a natural disaster with a large amount of loss of life,” he said. “But the event happened, and it was over, and we responded.”

The BP spill, he said, “was maddening—it was omnidirectional and indeterminate.” Allen compared the trial-and-error efforts to stop the spill to NASA’s efforts to get Apollo 13 back to Earth after the manned mission to the moon was crippled by an explosion in space.

Now, with the Gulf cleanup moving into the restoration stage, Allen is spending some time assisting Gulf communities while serving as a consultant on homeland-security issues for the Rand Corp.

This article appears in the July 19, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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