Diagnosing a crisis is the first step to solving it

Thad Allen, SF ’89, is known as something of a superhero when it comes to turning around major disasters. Barack Obama chose Allen, the former Commandant of the Coast Guard, to serve as the National Incident Commander for the coordinated response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As successful as he was in mitigating that disaster, Allen, who is now a senior executive at Booz Allen Hamilton, is perhaps best known for turning around another national crisis—Hurricane Katrina.

Days after the storm barreled into New Orleans in the late summer of 2005, Michael Brown, President George Bush’s FEMA head, was finding the situation increasingly unmanageable. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff tapped Allen, then chief of staff of the U.S. Coast Guard, to turn the disintegrating situation around.

“The hurricane made landfall on the 29th of August. I dispatched on the 5th of September,” Allen remembers. “What I found was a complete breakdown of law and order. Chaos in the Superdome. Press reports were showing the same human remains on street corners day after day. We were dealing with the equivalent of a weapon of mass effect—but the terrorist was nature. New Orleans, in effect, lost continuity of government.”

The first step in any turnaround, Allen says, is to correctly identify the problem. “One of the things that crippled the government’s initial response was that the leaders in charge did not get the problem right. We were dealing with the loss of civil institutions and the lack of local government capacity—not a hurricane. You must understand the challenge before you can even begin to turn a situation around.”

The power of a strong coalition

Next, Allen did what he is most famous for doing—he built a coalition. He brought together assigned military forces, regional leaders, and law enforcement officers into one productive unit working toward a unified goal. He worked with the coalition to divide the area into sectors. “We conducted a sweep of each sector, touching every single structure, going door to door, to make sure everyone received the attention they required. We placed an icon on every structure so that we knew when each had been checked.”

Allen provided support for local law enforcement officers in each sector and federal oversight for the critical unwatering of the city, which entailed clearing the streets and working to repair, restore, and replicate lost capacities so that local governments could manage their response. Within 48 hours, Allen and his extended team had turned the situation around. Soon afterward, Hurricane Rita rolled into town. But that, Allen says, is a turnaround story for another day.