Real Heroes Help in Gulf is Not Enough

COMMENTARY Environment

Real Heroes Help in Gulf is Not Enough

Aug 9th, 2010 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Downtown New Orleans teemed with heroes last week.

At the corner of Poydras and O'Keefe, a camera crew filmed a scene for "The Green Lantern." Scheduled for release in 201l, the film chronicles the exploits of the superhero crime fighter whose superpowers derive from a ring energized by an ancient Chinese lantern.

Even as the Green Lantern meted out rough justice in the farmers market set, real heroes toiled away just across the street at 1250 Poydras. That's headquarters for the Unified Area Command, run by the U.S. Coast Guard, the federal agency primarily responsible for organizing the response to the Gulf oil spill.

You're not likely to find Adm. Thad Allen there. Though the retired head of the Coast Guard is the senior government official in charge of the oil spill response, he spends most of his time dealing with operations at the "source" -- the floating city of drill rigs and ships surrounding Deepwater Horizon.

With Allen offshore or back in Washington, the man actually running things at 1250 Poydras is Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator. His responsibility: cleaning up the oil in the Gulf and onshore from Galveston, Texas, to Jacksonville, Fla.

In many ways, Zukunft's task is like running a war. In oil, he faces a crafty, elusive enemy. He must also battle the weather, including threats of hurricanes and tropical storms. He must deal with restive allies and an often critical press. And then there is an army to run: As of last week, it involved about 45,000 responders, 6,000-odd watercraft, a small fleet of airplanes and helicopters, and 11 million miles of boom.

But this is not the kind of warfare the Coast Guard trains for. Zukunft acknowledges his shop pretty much had to figure out how to manage the spill response on the job. "There is no Goldwater-Nichols for this," he says, referring to legislation that guides the Pentagon on how to manage joint operations among the services.

Instead, the Coast Guard was stuck with operating under the 1990 Oil Spill Act, legislation that proved inadequate for dealing with a large, regional disaster affecting multiple states and hundreds of local jurisdictions.

Moreover, the Coast Guard found itself in the unusual position of having to manage BP and an alphabet soup of federal agencies. That's no easy task, even when -- as the admiral concedes -- at the end of the day, he gets "51 percent of the votes." Five layers of command separate him from the people cleaning up the oil. That's a lot to plow through when dealing with a spill that can disappear and crop up in a completely different place within 24 hours.

To the Coast Guard's credit, its members have worked relentlessly to break through the bottlenecks. They've assigned liaison officers to each parish to help work through local issues. They propositioned assets at Forward Operating Branches for quick response. They set up an air coordination center to calm the chaos in the skies over the spill.

But the Coast Guard could use more help from Washington. Or at least a break. Instead of asking the service to do ever more with ever less, the administration should reverse planned cuts to the National Strike Force (the Coast Guard's oil spill response force). It should also speed up the replacement of the guard's increasingly worn-out cutters and aircraft and provide more resources for the Coast Guard reserves.

Washington must start taking better care of its Coast Guard. Otherwise, the next major maritime crisis may find the real superheroes unable to get the job done.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Examiner