Admiral Thad Allen talks about his experience leading the U.S. response to some of the most challenging modern crises. Named the “Master of Disaster” by TIME Magazine, Allen discusses the coronavirus pandemic and how to find calm in times of panic. 

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Dave: “Our work at the Partnership is focused on effectiveness in government and smooth political transitions. In your view, were our political leaders and our government ready for this crisis and where they prepare to implement the emergency response?”  

The admiral noted the critical role that career federal employees play in preparing for any crisis, and shared insights on how the political polarization of the country effects disaster preparedness.  

Admiral Allen: “The thing that has bothered me, and it’s bothered me for almost three decades now, is the more bifurcated and politicized we become as a nation, the more we’ve started to lose the dividing line between what’s a campaign and what’s governing. And when you try and run an operational response to a disaster or a crisis, and you confuse that with campaigning, you run the risk of failing of both.”  

Dave: “One of the challenges that you dealt with, and that I think President Trump and others are dealing with today, is the different responsibilities. The federal government may lead the effort, but really the States have all the resources and the responsibility on the ground. How do you balance the roles of the federal government, the States and the cities? And how do you get everybody lined up? Clearly today, all the governors, mayors and others who are delivering direct responses to the people in the coronavirus crisis are on different pages than the president.”  

Admiral Allen: “I’ve said many times that each one of these events, and especially the one we’re dealing with right now, becomes an exercise in applied civics and sometimes we end up load testing the Constitution and whatever the basic authorities mean. I always start with the 10th Amendment, which basically says that all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and specifically disaster response, police powers, health and sanitation and those types of things are a state responsibility. The question is how you move beyond that if the problem exceeds the ability of the state to respond to, and that’s done usually through a disaster or an emergency declaration that allows the federal government to come into assist.”  

Admiral Allen gave thanks to the Partnership for enabling continuity of government and effectiveness among career federal employees.  

Admiral Allen: “I have to give kudos to the Partnership for Public Service, what they’ve been doing for the past several transitions, a continuity of government that’s not continuity of policy and things that are subject to change by the will of the people, by electing people, but the continuity of government and the ability to maintain essential services has to be understood and respected by anybody that’s running for office. And it has to be depoliticized. It can’t be an immediate referendum on loyalty across two administrations.” 

Former U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen led the U.S. response to some of the most challenging modern crises including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Allen discusses how he kept morale high when communicating with the disaster response teams, media and the country during times of panic.

Listen, rate and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and TuneIn.

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Read the highlights:

In reflecting on our current situation, historical precedent and what we as individuals can do, Allen said, “These are very difficult times…when you’re in situations like this, you need to have as good an understanding as you can create for yourself of what you can control and what you can’t…and take advantage of the things that you do to control and optimize those.”   

Dave asked Allen how he improved people’s morale after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when people lost homes, jobs and more. He reflected on the dark days when he told the Federal Emergency Management workforce that he was “giving them an order they were to treat everybody they came in contact with as if they were a member of their own family: a mother, father, brother, sister and so forth. I said, ‘If you do that, two things are going to happen. One, you’re going to err on the side of doing too much, and at this point in the storm, I’m okay with that. Two, if somebody has got a problem with what you’re doing, their problem is with me.’ ” 

Marchick asked how Allen keeps up his own morale as a leader in tough times.   

“I’ve always felt that when you’re under the most stress, either professionally, personally or even physically, that’s the time when your behavior and your actions are most visible and consequential,” Allen said.