U.S. COAST GUARD ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Katrine Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
Interviewee: Captain Chris Colvin, USCG, Chief of Staff, Atlantic Area Command
Interviewer: PACS Peter J. Capelotti, USCGR
Date of Interview: September 27, 2005
Place: Atlantic Area Command Center, Portsmouth, Virginia
Q: Sir, if you could give me your name first and spell your last name please.
CAPT Colvin: Captain Chris Colvin; C-O-L-V-I-N.
Q: Captain Sir, could you just give me a little background about yourself, like how you came to be Chief of Staff and what your career path has been?
CAPT Colvin: My career path is afloat operations. I’ve been Commanding Officer of three cutters and XO of one cutter. I’ve been attached to six different cutters; CO of a 378; Dallas. On Dallas I was in Iraqi Freedom. When we first went over there I was CTU for the Haitian operations when Aristede left Haiti. I’ve been involved in many, many, many hurricanes and response for hurricanes. Other assignments have been, at least in Atlantic Area, Chief of Cutter Forces. Then I went to Coast Guard cutter Dallas down in Charleston after that and then when I came back here I was assigned as Chief of Operations and I did that for the past year. And then when the previous Chief of Staff left after being promoted I was assigned his job.
Q: When did you get to the Persian Gulf on the Dallas?
CAPT Colvin: That was, let me see, that was ‘03 I think.
Q: The Boutwell was there when I was there.
CAPT Colvin: Yes, it was the same time period and we were . . . let’s see, we ended up being there January, February, March, April, May, June; about five months basically. It was in ‘03.
Q: Right, I didn’t realize that. They got me out to the Boutwell to . . . .
CAPT Colvin: Well the Boutwell was over there working for Fifth Fleet and then we had the other side working for Sixth Fleet so we were off the coast of Syria the whole time and Boutwell was right up in there.
CAPT Colvin: We were working for the . . . .
Q: You were on the second front Sir [chuckle].
CAPT Colvin: Yes, as they called it, “The Northern Front”; and the Truman-Roosevelt battle force.
Q: And so you’ve had experience with hurricanes . . .
CAPT Colvin: Lots of experience with hurricanes.
Q: . . . and apparently that has come in very handy. Could you give me a sense of what else was going on in the days and weeks before Katrina? What was the Area working on?
CAPT Colvin: Well it was fairly relatively quiet prior to Katrina. By relatively quiet I’d say that it was normal operations. We were essentially doing normal operations throughout the Area and all the Districts. D-7 was busy doing migrants and drugs. JIATF South was close to record breaking drug seizures for the year and ended up, during the period, breaking the record for the year for cocaine. And then Cuban migrants were increasing. I think we were up about 100 percent on Cuban migrants this year.
Q: From last year?
CAPT Colvin: They’ve basically doubled from the previous year. Dominicans also going from DomRrep to Puerto have increased drastically this past year basically and it’s been on an upswing. Haitians of course are always a concern. So down in D-7 we had lots of migrants and drugs that we were dealing with.
Eighth District was just involved in their normal operations doing fisheries, preventing border intrusions, and environmental related missions and Fifth District was fairly quiet at the time.
First District was involved in fisheries and we were preparing for Flag conferences which were coming up in the fall. Those types of things; a fairly normal workload, and as Katrina came obviously things increased.
But what was interesting - and just to skip ahead a little bit out of sequence - but what was interesting was within the course of about a three-week period, about a four-week/three-week period, we went from basically normal operations, which can be pretty hectic, to three hurricanes. We had Katrina, Rita, and Ophelia. We had increased emphasis on the petro-chemical industry post-Katrina for security reasons. We had post-9/11; the 9/11 anniversary that came up and the natural tendency to increase our security posture throughout the AOR from that. We also had, in New York City; UNGA as we were calling it; UN General Assembly, and not quite a national security event but the next step below that; a Level 1 event, for national security, and the President was there and United Nations leaders from throughout the world were there. So a huge security emphasis in New York City and at the same time we had quite an increase, just post-Katrina, in Cubans coming across the straits, trying to handle that. Because the Cubans were being told . . . calls were going down to Cuba from relatives in South Florida saying, “Good time for you to try and get across, the Coast Guard’s all up in Katrina.” … and the key was the ability to flow forces at the operational level…
Q: And you’re confident that’s really where that spike came from, where they said, “The Coast Guard’s over here so let’s go over here”?
CAPT Colvin: D-7’s pretty confident that relatives were calling down and saying, “Now is an opportunity.” Now reality is we probably had roughly a typical surface force lay-down down there with the exception of some aircraft that we had had to move out of the AOR (which is painful when you lose your surveillance aircraft). But just the perception that it’s a good time to come across will increase the flow.
Q: And the counter-drugs, is there any reason for that spike or is that normal?
CAPT Colvin: No… interdictions have increased. It’s been going up now for two years, at least two years, and I think you’ll see a consistent positive trend line on that unless smugglers change their methods… and that’s because of HITRON. HITRON is tremendous . . . well two reasons: the other reason is that intel is greatly improved based on an operation that we have in Tampa; PANAMEX. You’ve probably read about it in the newspapers. So we’ve been able to get a lot of additional Intel going… but at the same time in other years we may have had great Intel too but we couldn’t stop the bad guys, which were coming up in the Go-Fasts; the speedboats. We couldn’t stop them… but now with HITRON you put the armed helicopter on top of them and shoot out their engines. It’s a tremendous asset and it works every time.
Q: Yes, after 9/11 I served with Captain Koronas who was my boss.
CAPT Colvin: Did you, on Seneca?
Q: He was on the Seneca.
CAPT Colvin: Yes, he did a great job starting the program . . . you know that HITRON has evolved into being just one of the most effective programs that I’ve been involved with in my time in the Coast Guard. I got to go down and do it on the Dallas. And I was previously CO of Diligence in – let’s see, when was that – in ‘96 to ’98 and our Go-Fast bill was we would be to man the side and wave at the Go-Fasts as they went by. A couple years later on Dallas, you get word of the Go-Fast and you launch the MH-68 and they would go out and shoot out the outboard engines… just a wonderful, very successful way of doing business.
Q: And introduce them to the Coast Guard [chuckle].
CAPT Colvin: It’s just outstanding. So that program that you and CAPT Karonis started has matured into an extremely successful program and that’s the reason that the drug interdictions are up . . . we’re catching them.
Q: That’s terrific.
CAPT Colvin: It is. It has been good.
Q: It sounds, from what I’ve heard this morning, that you must have like tripwires out there as these depressions start to spin into storms and then into hurricanes at that these layers. At what point does it get your attention so that it becomes something that you as Area Chief of Staff need to pay some serious attention too?
CAPT Colvin: Well that’s a good question as far as the tripwire would go. We always closely watch tropical systems as they form… but I think probably the best way to answer that is its good to lay a foundation of where Area is in the process. And as I skimmed the questions… quickly before coming down here. I think it’s important, for example, I saw one of the questions that said, “Operational and Tactical Control.”
Q: We’ve got that clarified for us [laughter].
CAPT Colvin: That figures. Okay, well that’s really important and that’s one of the things that the staff will tell you that I’m constantly preaching about where we are in the organization. And just let me reiterate, Headquarters is supposed to be on the strategic policy level and the Districts and Sectors are supposed to be down on the tactical level, and we’re in the middle on the operational or force allocation level. But we tend to confuse in the Coast Guard the operational level as being tactical and its not. In a classic military sense operational level is essentially a resource provider and so from my perspective - and it’s not necessarily the perspective for Atlantic Area - but from Colvin’s perspective - the three things that LantArea does… particularly when it comes to something like a hurricane Katrina… we’re a resource provider, we’re a communicator and we provide oversight; those three things. And when I say Resource Provider we coordinate the resources that we own and then we also coordinate resources we don’t own through the Districts or an inner-District Coordinator. So we own the major cutters and some of the C-130s and the MSSTs and PSUs and things like that… so we have resources that we can send that we own. But if we determine that that’s not enough then we can go ahead and grab resources out of another District and flow them towards the problem. So when you say, “When do we first get the feeling; the tripwire”, we’re watching tropical systems closely for situational awareness but it’s mainly when a District says, “Hey, we’ve got an event here. We need more resources.” And on the operational level, being a Resource Provider, that’s when we’re going to be getting involved. Of course we’re always providing oversight of operations. So all the operations that a District is doing we’re briefing on a daily basis and providing oversight of, but to keep the train on the tracks and keep things going properly you want the tactical level to handle the tactical level and you really prefer not to get into their knickers on how they’re doing their business. Let the On-scene Commander and let the Tactical Commander do their jobs and our job is to provide resources if they need more than they have normally, and if we see something egregious from an oversight perspective then we’ll step in and ask, “Why did you do that?” that type of thing.
Q: Getting a little bit ahead of ourselves here but I just want to ask, this seemed to be a situation that within a couple of days became bigger then the, well certainly bigger than the District but then almost bigger than the Area. And so you say you have oversight but then in a few days after that you’ve got a Coast Guard three-star taking over the whole response. How unique was that from your point of view?
CAPT Colvin: Well that could have been anybody. It’s Admiral Allen, which is great because he’s extremely competent and that’s wonderful from the PFO perspective. But it could have been an extremely competent person out of FEMA or it could have been somebody out of Customs. It could have been somebody else inside the Department and that would have been fine.
Q: So the fact that it was a Coast Guard Admiral materially wouldn’t change things from the way that LantArea would look at things?
CAPT Colvin: No, not at all. He’s the PFO and really under the PFO construct he’s coordinating the federal response with state and local responses, you know working what they need along with the Coast Guard and other federal entities that are in that area, and we’re pumping resources into the 8th District who’s doing what they had to do.
Q: If you wanted, let’s say from his point of view since he’s a Coast Guard Admiral, if he wanted to get a Coast Guard asset that he didn’t have or something who would he call?
CAPT Colvin: Well the right way to do it is for him to go to DHS.
Q: Okay, so he would work through DHS and back down?
CAPT Colvin: That’s the right way to do it.
CAPT Colvin: Now the reality is that Admiral Allen, being Chief of Staff of the Coast Guard, has quite an extensive network that he can call on.
CAPT Colvin: But certainly the right way to do it is for him to go back through DHS and have DHS then CG HQ tell us what they need.
Q: Yes. Was there a point at which with D-8, losing their Command Center in New Orleans; with the communications down and so forth, that Area felt they had to step in and ask or get a better situational awareness for what they needed and what you could provide?
CAPT Colvin: D-8 was essentially blown apart as you know. I mean it was a District that existed in their COOP Plans; the Continuity of Operations Plans. They fled to St. Louis, which was in accordance with their COOP Plan and they maintained connectivity at a level of continuity of operations from St. Louis… but each of the Sectors was basically blown up. Each Sector basically had to leave where they were at, at least New Orleans and Mobile, and Mobile was able to get back a little bit more quickly than New Orleans was, but some real challenges operating on I’d say almost an ad-hoc basic. That’s not quite the right term to use but the innovation was pretty remarkable on how they were able to keep operating without being able go back to their normal location of operations. I think probably Area may have provided a little bit more oversight than perhaps normal because of the situation but in general I think D-8 really did a good job maintaining the picture. They had a good handle on operations from St. Louis and what they needed. Now I was talking on a daily basis or more frequently than that with the Chief of Staff in the Eighth District who is up in St. Louis, and the District Commander of course was running around checking on stuff all the time. He was on-scene checking and he would pulse back into his Chief of Staff up in St. Louis and I would be talking over to, you know, Chief of Staff to Chief of Staff, “What do you need, what do need? Do you have enough resources? Can we give you more stuff? Do you have enough aircraft? Do you have enough ships,” you know MSSTs and all that kind of stuff, people?” And so we were constantly working those issues Chief of Staff to Chief of Staff. And Admiral Duncan of course was giving on-scene information back on up to his Chief of Staff on what he determined were his requirements. But you know as far as, did LantArea do more than normal because the District was blown up? Probably a little bit more; probably provided some more oversight, but in general I think the outcome was pretty much the same. I think District 8 did a great job particularly under the extremely difficult circumstances.
Q: What was your sense of what they needed the most? What were they asking you for that you either provided or you had to look for to provide?
CAPT Colvin: It basically was an aircraft problem at the beginning. They needed aircraft and it was pretty remarkable. We had the hurricane and if I remember correctly the hurricane came through on a Sunday night, Monday morning, that type of thing. By Tuesday the levees . . . you know Monday I think we were getting reports New Orleans escaped the bullet or something like that - I think there were headlines like that - and even on Tuesday morning . . . sometime on Monday it seemed like the levees were “overtopping” and then by Tuesday mid-day it was a horrible flood. And of course by Monday night we had resources, you know pilots were flying over and you had your organic resources in D-8, which fortunately has Air Station Houston, Air Station New Orleans and ATC Mobile, so fortunately and coincidentally it’s just the location that has quite a few aircraft and helicopters available. But reports were coming in by Monday evening, “Hey, we need more air assets.” So we ended up, I think the total number of aircraft the Eighth District has assigned to it is 18. At one point we were up to either 62 or 64 total aircraft that had been flowed into the area and on top of that I think we were up to an additional 14 Auxiliary aircraft. I think we were up to about 76 aircraft; 76/78 aircraft.
Q: Plus there were 14 Coast Guard Auxiliary.
CAPT Colvin: Coast Guard Auxiliary, exactly, yes, just moving people back and forth or equipment back and forth, or spotter missions, that type of thing. So it was pretty remarkable. We had over 30 percent of the Coast Guard’s air force right down there in that local AOR.
Q: Did that concern you or the other District Commanders in case somebody got whacked somewhere else?
CAPT Colvin: What we were able to do is maintain . . . we went down to a level that we were able to maintain our congressionally-mandated SAR Response, so we were able to do that.
Q: Can you explain that?
CAPT Colvin: You have legislation that requires a certain SAR response throughout the coast and it has been carefully worked out based on, “Within two hours can you get an aircraft on-scene”, that type of thing.
Q: So you have growth of the closing of the small boat stations?
CAPT Colvin: It’s very similar to that type of thing but not completely related. The small boat stations tend to be a similar problem but a little bit different. But you always have your interlocking SAR rings, you know circles essentially going on up and down the coast that you can get anywhere within two hours within this ring. And essentially for the most part it’s within the range of an H-65; short range helicopter, quick response, although the rings tend to be a little bigger in some of the locations like Elizabeth City and Cape Cod where we have 60s, and in Clearwater. So Congress requires us to maintain our SAR response in those locations and to do that we have to have a helicopter that’s up and running. Normally it takes about three helicopters to keep one in Bravo Status ready to fly and the reason being that normally you’ll have one down in maintenance, one involved in training and one involved in actual operations.
CAPT Colvin: We cut back to the point where we made sure we had the required SAR response so I don’t think that we dropped much below three helicopters in any location but it took us right down to the bare minimums.
Q: So there wasn’t anymore room below that?
CAPT Colvin: Basically we were able to scrape by with what we had. We couldn’t have done it for long due to maintenance requirements but we managed to scrape by for a couple weeks. Fortunately we had no significant breakdowns.
Q: From your seat is the mix of 60s versus 65s and the missions that they’re sent on, is that something that needs to be looked at or do you need more of both? I mean how would you address that?
CAPT Colvin: The challenge we have going right now is that we’re re-engining the 65s and so we have several 65s out of commission right now as we’re turning them from 65 Bravos into Charlies with the better engines in them. By the way, a great success because the 65 Bravos, as you know, have fuel restrictions and weight restrictions. The Charlies; we were often able to hoist as many as ten people on one sortie over New Orleans. A Bravo could not have done that.
Q: Did that prove themselves in this incident?
CAPT Colvin: I think so. I think that would be the case. I think they absolutely proved themselves. You had 13 people in one 65 Charlie. A record as far as I know. You couldn’t do that with a Bravo. And so it was a great success for Deepwater I would say right off the bat because that’s a Deepwater program right there.
Q: That whole ramping up of . . . .
CAPT Colvin: That 65 Charlie program.
CAPT Colvin: There was some concern as we changed the engines but the point is we’re in the process and unfortunately we’ve lost some helicopters due to that. We have some other constraints with our fixed wing aircraft with limitations on some of our C-130s; wing-box limitations and constraints with our 1500 series. So basically we have a fleet of aircraft that is also, to a certain extent, needs refurbishment; the 1500 series with their wing-box issues, possibly the same issue coming up the 1700 series C-130s. The Falcons, which at one point we were going to get rid of, proved to be a tremendous asset quickly moving people around, particularly people like Admiral Allen, you know shooting him down on-scene and providing surveillance, post-hurricane. The 65 Charlies; tremendously successful. But the best aircraft going for this operation were the 60s. They were tremendous because they could hoist a lot more people than the 65s and were able to handle weather conditions, for example, post-Katrina, better than the 65s and then have longer endurance too. You know they could keep up, hold more people, just the whole package. The 60s were great. And your question is, “Do we have enough?” I think the answer is we have enough to maintain our congressionally mandated SAR coverage. We were unable to deploy helicopters during this period on our cutters but that was a problem that we had been dealing with because they had been going through re-engining and so we were down to basically a minimum on the 65s. Additionally HITRON birds are very limited on the amount that we have. We only have eight total between the two coasts.
Q: There’s no lift on those either?
CAPT Colvin: Nope, 68’s are not configured to hoist. Because of the limitations of resources we were unable to have 65s on any of the cutters during this period… but like I said, that’s because they were going through re-engining and they would have not been available.
Q: Can you recall discussions, either after 9/11 or before or since, about a potential requirement for the Coast Guard to do Urban Search and Research or was most of this doctrine developed in the last three weeks as to how this would all be done and who would do it and with what platforms?
CAPT Colvin: No, as far as Urban Search and Rescue goes I have not heard discussions about the Coast Guard training for Urban Search and Rescue. I think it’s interesting in that Inland Civilian Aviation SAR is supposed to be run by the U.S. Air Force. No federally designated land SAR I believe.
Q: Why is that not done in this situation?
CAPT Colvin: There is a National SAR Plan that’s probably worth reviewing. Under the National SAR Plan the U.S. Air Force is tasked with Civilian Aviation SAR in the United States and the Coast Guard is tasked with Maritime SAR. So the question is, who in the Federal Government is tasked for inland SAR? I think that’s left to States and local entities.
Q: DOD participation?
CAPT Colvin: Well DoD was in . . . So certainly we were in contact with DoD in general.. It just gets back to your other question, you know we don’t because our AOR is normally offshore or at least along the coast, you know that type of thing, and not necessarily working around telephone wires and power wires. You know certainly cliffs a lot of times and along the shoreline like you’ll see up in the West Coast a lot of times. You get some really challenging flying in the fog and the cliffs and that type of thing where you rescue people, hikers and people that have fallen. But normally obviously our expertise tends to be going offshore and hoisting people off boats, which requires unique skills as that is. And I would say probably, I guess if you want to extrapolate a little bit, it probably directly relates to what they’re doing. When you approach a ship you’re very, very concerned about rigging. You know a ship’s rigging is . . . are they going to have the antennas? Are they going to have cables, wires; that type of thing, and I would say probably it’s potentially . . . even a sailboat is very challenging; to hoist somebody off a sailboat. I’d say in some ways perhaps it’s even a more challenging environment offshore because things are moving all the time as opposed to this… but both are tremendously dangerous and here if you got snagged on the wrong thing it would have been terrible, too. But I think probably our training to hoist people in an offshore dynamic moving environment probably made our pilots highly qualified to do this mission.
Q: I can understand how, for example, in the first hurricane response we get the forces away from the hurricane and then they come in on the backside of it and so forth and will be there first to do Search and Rescue. I guess I’m still trying to figure out why for four or five days, which seemed like we were the only folks doing helicopter rescues.
CAPT Colvin: Well that’s a national debate that’s going on right now. There were some USN and many National Guard helos in there particularly later in the period.
Q: But I guess what I’m saying is I guess there’s no mechanism that kicks in at some point to say, “Yes, we’re doing these in flooded houses but this is Inland SAR and this is supposed to be a DOD operation”. And I know that once we start flowing resources and the District Admiral asks for more and they’ve got people on roofs and so forth, the Coast Guard’s going to be there.
CAPT Colvin: Well here’s the challenge I think you run into. You’ll have to explore this one a little bit.
Q: We’re having a meeting with the NORTHCOM Historian tomorrow morning [chuckle].
CAPT Colvin: Yes, you’ll have to explore this a little bit but here’s the challenge, at least from what I see. We were talking to Second Fleet and CFFC; Combined Fleet Forces Command, and Second Fleet, which owns all the resources basically that were going in there from the Navy perspective. They were eager to go in. They were chomping at the bit.
They wanted to go and they had forces that were in the area and were ready to go. But I think you really have a problem if the local and state officials don’t ask for the help. I think the Federal Government, from what I understand and you’re going to have to confirm this and check on it, has to declare the Insurrection Act the way I understand it if the State does not ask the Feds to come in… and the President was very hesitant to declare an Insurrection Act in this situation.
Remember this whole thing is rapidly changing and you’re not really sure just how bad it is and it’s hard to believe that it was as bad as the story started coming out two days into it. So let’s just say Tuesday evening we realized, “This is bad. We’ve got reporters in there and we’ve got information coming back from Coast Guard pilots.” Monday evening it wasn’t as bad. Remember the levees started going on Monday and then by Tuesday morning we knew how bad it was. So by Tuesday afternoon the President could have declared the Insurrection Act when the state did not ask for assistance. Of course if the state does ask for assistance the Stafford Act kicks in… and the state has to shoulder some of the funding. My understanding is there was a delay with the Governor of the State, from at least what I have heard on news reports, and that needs to be worked out. I don’t know at what level of government but . . .
Q: And the Coast Guard’s not constrained by this?
CAPT Colvin: No.
Q: With the Posse Comintatus and all this?
CAPT Colvin: But you ask, “Well what does that have to do with Search and Rescue?” Well there comes a point where you go from Search and Research to just coming in heavy with DoD forces and taking over an operation and that’s the way DoD tends to do things because of their tremendous training and capabilities. They don’t do things the way we do, which is, “Just do it.” They tend to plan and have a big support tail that goes with it and a lot of presence and a lot of stuff, and now you’re starting to get yourself away from doing a little bit of support by the Coast Guard in the maritime. We always work with Second Fleet and Navy assets for Search and Rescue offshore. It’s not at all uncommon for us to have our helicopters land on a Navy ship out there, refuel and then go do a SAR case farther offshore; several hundred miles offshore with an H-60, pick somebody up off a boat, then go ahead and bring them on back. There was a case not too long ago that was probably worth reviewing, that type of thing. But they’ll bring them back and they’ll drop them off on a warship or a large Navy combatant of some sort; a supply ship or whatever, and they’ll get medical attention and all that kind of stuff. DoD routinely supports us on SAR. There’s a big difference, I think, between the occasional little bit of support and going in with lots of stuff and I think that’s where their hesitation was, if I’m not mistaken, because they did have some assets that were helping out to a certain extent as we’ve heard, some helicopters. But the real debate was, “Do we come in and come in heavy?” And now you start getting into, “Well doggone it, if you do that it’s not just Search and Rescue, its law enforcement, too… and you get yourself into Posse Comintatus, and that’s really where I think… the way I read it from what I know about Press reports, etc., is the Governor was hesitant to call the DoD in big time. She wanted the Louisiana National Guard to come in and take it. The Louisiana National Guard is not mobilized immediately. Remember they’re Citizen Soldiers so they have to get their uniforms and go muster someplace. So you have that challenge of that built-in delay for the Louisiana National Guard of at least a couple days.
CAPT Colvin: That’s just quite reasonable from my perspective for these citizens soldiers and then the Governor’s got to factor that in. She wants her Louisiana National Guard, which by the way has law enforcement authority under Title 32 that DoD does not have under Title 10. So you have that whole thing, which again brings us back to the national debate that’s just starting right now, “Should DoD come in and run these things?”
Q: I guess it seems to me what you’re saying is that the only organization on a Federal level that can respond in less than two days is the Coast Guard.
CAPT Colvin: I think it would be interesting to see if, for example, the President says for things of national significance; you know a disaster of national significance, whatever that might be, just like if the President declares something to be a Homeland Defense versus Homeland Security, how quickly DoD could come in. Obviously they could come in pretty quick if they were ready and I think personally that they could come in very, very fast, probably certainly within 24 hours, at least with helicopters. If all constraints were removed and plans were in place and they were just told to go and be there they certainly could have certain units that would be available. The Navy could have certain things available. So I think if DoD was put in charge of something of national significance; an event like that, they could react, maybe not within 12 hours but certainly within 24 hours.
Q: Let me ask you this Sir.
CAPT Colvin: Well let me ask you something just for fun.
CAPT Colvin: Do you want DoD in charge from a state or local perspective?
Q: The question after 9/11 that was answered over and over again was . . . the last thing for example officials in New York wanted were gray hulls sitting in New York Harbor because it just intensified everybody’s anxiety that they were at war and whereas the Coast Guard; the white hulls with the orange stripes, had this reassuring presence, brand name; all that kind of stuff, and that’s what people . . . when the Coast Guard shows up people feel better. When the Navy shows up people figure, “Why am I sitting in the middle of a war zone?”
CAPT Colvin: Well that to me is a big debate. If you’re a state governor or a mayor of New Orleans do you want DoD to come in and take over, and they will take over, or do you want to remain in charge as a state and local?
Q: Following on that question, you were mentioning the petro-chemical security. Let’s say an event happens at a petro-chemical plant on the Ohio River. I assume, being on the river, that the Coast Guard would consider that part of its bailiwick.
CAPT Colvin: Yes, it certainly does.
Q: After 9/11 you had these new maritime Homeland Security structures stood up; the MLHS offices and Districts and so forth, at least in part to sort of bridge this gap between “M” and “O”. You had these Sectors and Activities as opposed to the old divided commands. Did those come into play in this situation and would the Coast Guard’s response have been any different if 9/11 had never happened?
CAPT Colvin: Well let me take that in two portions. Number one: the Coast Guard’s response was better because of 9/11 I would say and the reason I say that is because we had additional resources. We had the MSSTs that were available to bring into the area. We didn’t necessary have more helicopters or aviation resources or stuff like that but after the first wave of aircraft and after we started bringing them in we brought in the MSSTs, which were tremendously capable at providing force protection, law enforcement-type presence and just using their boats to go around and help people out. So the MSSTs would have not existed without 9/11 and I think they’ve been tremendously successful. So I think our response is better post-9/11 because of that alone. And there are probably other reasons too but certainly the MSSTs were a tremendous benefit down there.
Were the Sectors a better construct than the groups and MSOs? I don’t know. I don’t know if it was or not. I think the Groups were tremendously successful previously and I think the Groups would have been tremendously successful on this one. The MSOs -- I think perhaps it depends on the location and probably even depends on how good a Sector is today to a certain extent. If you took a situation where the MSO and a Group Commander worked very, very closely together, as we had many examples of that throughout the AOR, I think it probably didn’t make much difference whether you had the Sector or not. If you had an MSO that did not work closely with the Group I think we’re better off with the Sector. So on the other hand you may have Sectors that may not have been as good as the previous MSO Group Command, it’s hard to say, but all and all, as far as how would I rate how Sector Mobile did and Sector New Orleans for organizations that were just blown out of their locations, I thought they did a great job. But ultimately, for a different reason… one stop shopping… the Sector construct is probably better.
Q: All of the things that are going to follow on from this as they start pumping out the city and the surrounding area, how much will Area be involved as the stuff starts to flow down into the Gulf of Mexico and all of that in terms of Marine Environmental Response?
CAPT Colvin: Where we get involved, once again, is oversight and providing resources, and providing resources to a large extent means working with the MLC; Maintenance Logistics Command, who just did a fabulous job. What happens are the requests for resources come into Atlantic Area and Atlantic Area may even look at whether or not resources are needed without a request coming in. But Atlantic Area goes ahead and validates that and then turns the request over to MLC and MLC makes it happen. They get the people; the Reserves or whatever is required to go ahead and fill the personnel requirement.
As you look at the environmental situation evolving, we’ve taken Strike Teams from throughout the Coast Guard and we’ve put them on-scene and coordinated that. Additionally we’re working with MLC to get as many Reserves and other types of primarily “M” field experts to go down there and work these issues. And what they’re really doing is supervising civilian contractors that are doing the clean-ups and we get an experts on-scene to watch that. So I think as a Resource Provider that’s the critical . . . along with oversight but resources and oversight are the two key things.
Q: Was there a part of this operation, from your seat, that made this particularly challenging or was this a hurricane just on a huge scale?
CAPT Colvin: From an Area perspective in some ways I’m not sure that this is all that much different than 9/11. In some ways 9/11 was more intense and in some ways this was more intense. Realizing, at least in 9/11 you still had electricity and communications in New York City and New Orleans did not. In 9/11 you could get around on the streets in New York City and here you couldn’t, so there are some real challenges there that folks in New York did not have. But certainly as I go back and look at major things the Area has done - whether it’s 9/11, whether it’s Iraqi Freedom, whether it’s another one of these Haiti things or Hurricane Andrew, or Y2K or the Eastern North Carolina floods, which Hurricane Floyd and Dennis flooded the heck out of eastern North Carolina, which is probably the most similar type thing that we’ve dealt with, that was huge, very similar but a much wider area flooded with a lot of the similar type of helicopter rescues - I would say that it’s a fairly similar type of event from my perspective and you know it’s heavy on personnel requirements, long work hours, lots of attention to detail, lots of attention to what’s going on and making sure that the On-scene Commander has the resources required to do the job successfully, and then providing oversight just to make sure things were going well, which of course they always do.
Q: You flow all these resources, you sent 38-percent of the aircraft into this area, is that a model that the Coast Guard prefers or would there be a better model where they wouldn’t have that necessity to flow things from one area to another and still be able to maintain their regular operations?
CAPT Colvin: Well that’s a good question. I don’t think you can get away from the Coast Guard is extremely small. I mean if we were huge; the size of the U.S. Army, you could probably have a Region or a Sector or something where you had as many aircraft as you needed and as many boats as you needed; cutters you need and all that kind stuff and forces might not have to be flowed. It would be a tremendously redundant, expensive proposition for the American public to fund. We’re very small and we’re quick and nimble but we don’t have much depth for ourselves; the size of the New York City Police Department, and we can’t forget that. It’s great that we have locations all up and down the coast so we’re ready to react immediately… but even on something like this with locations all the way over to the Gulf Coast coming down the East Coast, remember what we did, we fled. We evacuated. We left the area. So even though we have locations there we just, like everybody else, left the area. So we did not have people in there when the hurricanes went through. And what happened of course, as soon as they went through the local responders came on back, or at least our folks who are stationed there came back, but then they found out their stations, whatever . . . you know they went to the locations where they could do effective operations. But then as those forces flowed in we had forces flowing in from throughout Atlantic Area to augment. If we had a model where we couldn’t grab forces everywhere and flow them, absolutely critical is the ability to flow forces and to coordinate forces from throughout the Atlantic Area and accept some forces from Pacific Area to which we coordinated that. Working with the Pacific Area we got some C-130s and MSSTs, a PSU I think and a couple 60s, and people too. That ability to this level right here; the Area level, the operational level, providing the ability to flow resources is what makes us successful in one of these things. If we went to a straight, let’s say a regional concept where you use the forces that you have inside that region and you basically get rid of the operational level and have a Headquarters, which should be focused on strategic policy, doctrine and that type of thing, and then you’ve got tactical down here, who’s going to send forces from up in New England down here? Who’s going to do that? Who’s going to say . . . or worst yet you get attacked in two places, whose going to say, “No, you need to share this here and there,” you know that type of thing. Obviously Headquarters is going to have to do that… but large military organizations like the Navy have, for example, decided that you need a Fleet Forces Command, which is our operational equivalent on the DoD side; CFFC. You’ve got the Pentagon. You’ve got CNO up top doing the strategy policy, you’ve got CFFC here in Norfolk and then you have of course the fleets for the Navy doing their tactical, and we just do it very similarly. But we’re that intermediate level; the middle level that ties it all together and flows forces.
Q: You got some folks from Canada . . .
CAPT Colvin: Yes we did.
Q: . . . to backfill at Air Station Cape Cod. Who makes that call? Is that your office as well?
CAPT Colvin: Yes, a little bit of both. CAA prompted that and I called up to the First and Ninth Coast Guard District talking to the folks that that work with and have great relations with Canada… I talked to both Mark Campbell and Tom Sparks; the Chief of Staffs for both of those Districts. And also our Chief of “O”; Neil Bushman, talked to their “Os” too and said, “Okay, see what you can do to get the Canadians to backfill”, and of course they do that anyway. As they lose forces they talk anyways . . . they have great relations with just the normal folks that they work with. They have contingencies. If all the aircraft for whatever reason go down at Cape Cod they know they can call the Canadians and the Canadians will answer.
Q: Is that a request that has to go to the State Department or can the Coast Guard make that Coast Guard to Coast Guard?
CAPT Colvin: We tend to do it straight. We tend to do it with . . . our Rescue Coordination Centers talk to their Rescue Coordination Centers and they provide what they can provide. There’s no guarantee but they do the best they can.
Q: Is there anything else from where you were sitting that you wanted to add Sir?
CAPT Colvin: Nothing I can think of Senior. I do think that second to the last question you had there is key to the success of this operation; the ability to be able to flow forces. For an organization the size of the New York City Police Department operating on a national scope, if you don’t have that ability to flow forces… and you have to have some entity, a District’s not big enough to flow forces and a Headquarters is supposed to be working strategy and policy. It shouldn’t be doing that.
CAPT Colvin: Flowing forces at the operational level was critical to the success of this operation, from my perspective, D-8 did a great job but they didn’t have enough resources to do it all. Critical is having the Area and MLC construct to flow forces in.
Q: Just one final thing about that. I imagine you were on the phone a lot with your counterpart in PacArea?
CAPT Colvin: Yes, I talk to Dan Neptune a lot anyway… yes, and I did on this, yes, absolutely. And I talked to him quite a bit on this thing.
Q: Captain Sir, I want to thank you for your time.
CAPT Colvin: Thanks Senior.
Q: Thank you Sir.
END OF INTERVIEW