Adm. Thad Allen is an expert on thankless jobs. After the initial response to Hurricane Katrina had been botched, President George W. Bush assigned him to clean up the mess. Now President Barack Obama has put him in charge of handling the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.

Oh, and the assignment came just weeks before Allen was scheduled to retire. He ended his tour as commandant of the Coast Guard on May 25, but he remains on active duty and will stay on the job as long as the president needs him.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster, Allen told a group of columnists last week, is unprecedented. “This is closer to Apollo 13 than to the Exxon Valdez,” he said.

The wellhead, 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, is accessible only by robotic devices. And the catastrophic failure occurred in the well’s blowout preventer, which, Allen said, was “generally considered to be a fail-safe device.” There was no proven method for plugging a leak at such a great depth, which is why there has been so much head-scratching, why the attempted solutions have had such a back-of-the-envelope quality, and why the answer to so many basic questions has been “we don’t know.”

As national incident commander in charge of the federal government’s response to the spill, Allen has final say on what happens in all three theaters of this war: on the sea floor, in the open waters and along the shore. During an hourlong briefing at the White House, Allen had to step out of the room for phone conversations with Rear Adm. Mary Landry, his on-scene deputy, and Tony Hayward, chief executive of BP, as they collectively made the final decision to go ahead with the “top kill” attempt to stop the leak.

After Allen returned, two of his aides furiously thumbed their BlackBerrys and gave him periodic updates: Ten minutes away from beginning the top kill. Five minutes away.

Allen said it “may or may not be a good idea” that essentially all the know-how and equipment needed to deal with a deep-sea oil spill is in the hands of the private sector, in this case BP. Within the government, he said, it is possible to establish “unity of command.” Given the current structure, in which BP and other private companies play such crucial roles, “unity of effort is the best we can do.”

The admiral acknowledged there have been moments of high tension. He described a conference call several days earlier — involving BP officials, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Allen and others — about the top-kill idea. The clear risk of the procedure was that pumping mud and debris into the well might create new cracks that would allow much more oil to escape. At one point, someone from BP mentioned some data that the company had obtained about pressure inside the well. Allen said that Salazar angrily halted the discussion and demanded that BP provide any information that had been withheld. It turned out, Allen said, that BP had already reported the data. But the tension, and the high stakes, was evident.

“Offshore oil technology has just whizzed us by,” Allen said. Responding to the Deepwater Horizon accident has been a desperate exercise in trying to catch up.

Trying to protect the Gulf shore, Allen said, has been “a little like the Union line at Gettysburg,” waiting to see when, and from what direction, the enemy would arrive. Allen said he is forced to set priorities. For example, if he has enough booms to protect a certain beach or a certain marsh, he’ll protect the marsh. To clean a beach that has been fouled by oil is difficult but straightforward, he said. To clean a marsh, however, is almost impossible.

Allen was far from sold on Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idea to create artificial barrier islands that could protect the coastline. The project would take “six to nine months,” he said, and might not be the best use of available resources. In the days following the briefing, however, Jindal’s brainstorm got more traction with the ultimate boss — President Obama — and some island-building seems likely.

Through it all, Allen manages to seem unflustered. He knows, however, that he’s working under a tight deadline. The veteran of storms named Katrina and Rita knows that hurricane season begins this week — and with it, the threat of new environmental horrors.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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