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For all its competence, the Coast Guard gets little respect within the military. "Puddle pirates" is one of its gentler nicknames. With 39,400 active-duty personnel, the Coast Guard is tiny. It is the only armed service that resides outside the Pentagon, and although it has been involved in every major war since the Civil War, combat is not its primary mission.
In fact, the Coast Guard has no primary mission--and it may be its eclectic history that explains its success in dealing with Katrina. For 215 years, it has always had to manage a litany of unrelated chores. The Revenue Cutter Service was established by Alexander Hamilton to collect taxes from a brand new nation of patriot smugglers. When the officers were out at sea, they were told to crack down on piracy; while they were at it, they might as well rescue anyone in distress. They made their first drug bust in 1890. Over the years, the Coast Guard fought the maritime "rum wars" during Prohibition, saved tens of thousands of Cuban refugees and became the nation's lead oil-spill cleanup unit. Now the Coast Guard is supposed to protect the nation's 95,000 miles of coastline against terrorist attacks too.
The Coast Guard has always been, in a word, busy--whether during war or peace. "We are deployed every day," says Allen. "We fly every day. We respond to oil spills every day." Also, since the Coast Guard is the only military branch allowed to perform law-enforcement duties, it is accustomed to engaging with civilians. In one day, a Coast Guard boat crew off of California might arrest as many people as it saves.
But perhaps the most important distinction of the Coast Guard is that it trusts itself. On the morning of 9/11, Allen, then commander of the Atlantic Area, was getting a physical in Portsmouth, Va. By the time he got back to the office, shortly after the second plane had hit the Twin Towers, a captain in New York had already closed his port. Another captain closed waterways around Baltimore and Washington. They didn't need to ask Allen for permission, and he, in turn, didn't need to ask his commandant for permission to position three large cutters in New York harbor.
That kind of decentralization is essential if a large organization is to move quickly, as any good CEO knows. But the rest of the government has been moving in the opposite direction, centralizing dozens of agencies into the giant DHS bureaucracy.
On the Gulf Coast, this autonomy and flexibility mattered well before Katrina hit. On Aug. 27, the day before the mayor of New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation, the Coast Guard began moving its personnel out of the region. Officers left helicopters and boats in a ring around the area so that they could move in behind the storm, no matter which direction it took. "We have extraordinary autonomy to move assets," explained Allen during a flyover of the Mississippi Gulf Coast region a few weeks after Katrina. "I don't think any other agency has the ability to do that."