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Throughout the flooded streets of New Orleans, if Coast Guard boat crews lost radio communication, they still knew what to do. "We give extraordinary, life-and-death responsibilities to 2nd class petty officers," says former Coast Guard Commandant James Loy, now retired and a senior counselor at the Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm. Anna Steel, 24, a Coast Guard reservist from St. Louis, Mo., began navigating her 16-ft. skiff through New Orleans neighborhoods three days after the storm hit. She and her crewman brought 35 people to dry land at a highway on-ramp marked, appropriately enough, Elysian Fields. As the coxswain, Steel had extensive training in piloting the boat, so she made the decisions. "When we're out on the boat, I'm in charge. Even if my crewman is a lieutenant, which way outranks me, he reports to me. I had that authority within my first two years in the Coast Guard."
You can learn about the culture of an organization from the stories its members tell. One of the Coast Guard's most celebrated rescues was of the crew of the doomed oil tanker the Pendleton in 1952 off Massachusetts. In 60-ft. seas, during a snowstorm, Coast Guard officers managed to pile all 32 survivors onto a 36-ft. wooden lifeboat moments before the tanker capsized. But when the coxswain radioed his superiors for further direction, his commanders argued over the radio waves about what to do next. Instead of wasting precious time, the coxswain switched off the radio and made up his mind to head for shore. Everyone survived, and the Coast Guard crew received gold lifesaving medals. "There's no place to hide in the Coast Guard," says Rear Admiral Robert Duncan, commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District, which includes the Gulf Coast states. "So we end up with a culture that is not averse to taking measured risk."
Since 9/11, the Coast Guard has been given a heavy new burden of antiterrorism responsibilities--like protecting refineries, shipyards and bridges at the nation's 361 ports. When it was moved from the Department of Transportation to DHS in 2003, Coast Guard boosters like Senator Susan Collins of Maine made sure it retained all its functions. But, as with FEMA, there is always a risk that the new terrorism focus will detract from its traditional lifesaving role.
Last week, President Bush signed a DHS funding bill that includes $7.8 billion for the Coast Guard, $3 billion more than it received in 2001. But the agency--because of its small constituency and growing responsibilities--remains chronically underfunded. "The Coast Guard is a damn good building block, but you can't expect it to do what it did in Katrina on the current budget model it's on," says Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who is now an expert in homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Its assets are falling apart," he says. Of the 41 major naval fleets in the world, the Coast Guard's is the 39th oldest, behind even Pakistan. It is in the middle of a massive, 25-year modernization project, but Flynn says that's too little, too late.
The truth is, even if the Coast Guard's budget doubled, the rest of the military--and thousands of other local, state and federal officials--would still have to do more, sooner, the next time a major catastrophe hits. So the Coast Guard's most valuable contribution to that effort may be as a model of flexibility, and most of all, spirit.