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One-on-one with Thad Allen

Rita Cosby speaks with the man heading FEMA's post-Katrina efforts
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Just hours after former FEMA Director Mike Brown testified on Capitol Hill, MSNBC's Rita Cosby talked Tuesday with Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, the man put in charge of FEMA's post-Katrina cleanup along the Gulf Coast.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

RITA COSBY:  Admiral Allen, what do you make of Mike Brown's comments essentially blaming everybody in Louisiana but virtually accepting no responsibility himself?

VICE ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. COAST GUARD:  Rita, I haven't heard Mike Brown's comments in their entirety.  My job's here on the ground in New Orleans, and I think that's where the people of America want me working.

COSBY:  Absolutely.  But he did say that there was incredible dysfunction in Louisiana.  And he said that that made his job difficult, that it made, basically, the job for everybody difficult, that they couldn't get organized, that there was in fighting, and that created some of the chaos.  Is that your assessment, as well?

ALLEN:  Well, Rita, I didn't arrive down here until about the 5th of September, and since I got here, we've been working on a unified effort.  I've worked with both Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco, the parish presidents and everybody in the state.  And the teamwork that I've seen since I've been down here is terrific.

COSBY:  Did you see any, you know, dysfunction, as Mike Brown says, in the early days?  I mean, that's what he was saying was happening in the early days and created the chaos.

ALLEN:  Nothing I would term dysfunction.  Rita, you need to understand, after you've had a hurricane like Katrina and Rita, nothing is going to be the same.  And to call anything functional is probably a misnomer.  But dysfunctional is a really subjective term.  I've been working really hard with both the governor, the mayor of New Orleans and the parish presidents, and we're making significant progress down here.

COSBY:  Did you feel there was any dysfunction in your assessment in the early days that could have attributed to some of the problems?  I mean, he's basically passing the buck and saying, 'It was local officials, it was their chaos, and that's why I couldn't get anything organized.'

ALLEN:  Rita, when I got to New Orleans, I found a town that had become just as much a victim as the folks that had to evacuate and were caught in different places, trying to leave town.  And what we're trying to do is put back, basically, the elements of a civil society, rebuild the infrastructure and set the parameters so New Orleans can be reconstructed.  That's an extraordinary situation for any city to find itself in, and quite frankly, my focus is moving ahead and working with the mayor and the city leaders and the governor to make that happen.

COSBY:  But the problem is, obviously, people are pointing the finger, so it's creating a lot of delays.  Are you disappointed at all the fingerpointing happening in all the different directions?  Because even Governor Blanco came out today, sir, and said, you know, Look, Mike Brown is essentially lying.

ALLEN:  Rita, I'm pretty busy down here.  I don't have any fingers to point anywhere except in the New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and helping these folks.

COSBY:  Well, that's what I want to ask you.  Is it disappointing for you to hear the others making the thing?  I'm not saying you are.  But do you believe that maybe the fact that all these other folks-maybe that's not where the time should be spent?

ALLEN:  Rita, all I can tell you is I work in Louisiana right now, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas for the people who've been impacted by these storms.  That's my focus.  I'm not a politician.  I don't work in Washington.

COSBY:  Do you believe there should be an independent investigation of some sort?  That was brought up again today.  At least to look at it, you know, and that way-that way keeps the integrity, the credibility of everything.

ALLEN:  Well, I think it's prudent after any event of this magnitude that you have some inquiry to make sure you want to have lessons learned.  There's things that we can learn and move forward on.  I think that's a natural good leadership or management decision anytime you have something of this magnitude.

COSBY:  Another big resignation today.  A lot of people were very surprised by this, sir, Eddie Compass, who I got to spend a lot of time with when I was down there in New Orleans, shocked a lot of people and resigned.  Were you surprised by that?

ALLEN:  Rita, these individual decisions about when to have a change in your career and go on to a new phase of your life are very intensely personal.  They involve family discussions and a lot of context that's not available to anybody else, and I wouldn't want to comment on it.

COSBY:  Will it make your job more difficult, though?  Because now there's sort of a new man in charge, at least a temporary person running the police force.  Does that make your job more difficult, that suddenly, there's a change at the helm?

ALLEN:  I don't believe so.  We've had a very strong connection with Terry Ebbert, who is the director of homeland security for the city of New Orleans.  The fire, police and emergency services report up through him.  He's been our main conduit in dealing with the city on almost every issue we've had regarding security and different issues around the city since I've got there, and he's a very strong partner and we continue to work well together.

COSBY:  You believe things will still move forward?  It won't cause any friction or any holdups?

ALLEN:  Moving forward at good speed.

COSBY:  Talk about, in fact, moving forward in terms of the recovery.  I know it's quite a massive task, particularly after Hurricane Rita, the second hurricane to hit New Orleans, unfortunately.  How much of a mess are things today?  How much has that set everybody back?

ALLEN:  Well, Rita-I'm using Rita twice here.  I apologize. (LAUGHTER) ... Hurricane Rita went to the west of where Katrina struck in Louisiana.  The last two days, I've spent a lot of time in a helicopter flying over Cameron parish and Calcasieu parish, surveying the damage down there.  The damage from Hurricane Rita in southwest Louisiana was extensive.  I've flown over Waveland, Mississippi, and the areas that were devastated by the tidal surge and the wind damage in that part of the coastline.  I can tell you that Cameron parish, Vermilion parish and Calcasieu suffered equal damage from Hurricane Rita.

COSBY:  ... It's got to be disappointing to you about the levees overflowing so soon after the other, and here we are, still only midway through the hurricane season.  Are you nervous?

ALLEN:  Well, I think we all should be nervous about the levee system in New Orleans.  It's in a significantly weakened state.  As everybody saw, we were able to rebuild the levees, or more specifically, the Corps of Engineers was able to rebuild the levees to about a five to seven-foot height, and it exceeded that during this storm surge with Hurricane Rita.  It's going to take us at least until next hurricane season to reestablish these levees in the strength that they were before Hurricane Rita.  Corps's working at best speed, but we just need to be mindful of the fact that the levee system is not going to be viable for probably another year.

COSBY:  And finally, you said at a FEMA presser today that now's not the time to sort of come back to certain parts of Louisiana.  Is it too early for some of those residents who are returning, even in some parts of New Orleans?

ALLEN:  Well, we've said previously, until we have a good handle on the health and safety environment in New Orleans, even with the water gone -- and we've been able to go through and assess all the buildings-there needs to be a very cautious line taken, as far as reentry.  I had extensive conversations with Mayor Nagin and his staff, and I think we're all in agreement.  The business district can be re-inhabited on a daily basis to do assessments, check damage and start the rebuilding.  The west bank is viable for reentry.  It's the rest of the New Orleans, where the water has receded, we now have a lot of sediment there, and there's almost going to have to be a dwelling-by-dwelling assessment done regarding the conditions of the house.

And I think Mayor Nagin's intentions are to give people access to that, to let them come in and see it, understand what the conditions of their houses and their belongings are, but in the long run, there's going to have to be some significant decisions made by the city almost on a dwelling-by-dwelling basis on whether or not the dwellings are viable or are going to have to come down.

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