Transcript: Thad Allen on 'FNS'

The following is a transcribed excerpt of "FOX News Sunday," Sept. 11, 2005.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: There was a major shakeup Friday with FEMA Director Michael Brown (search) removed as the lead federal official on hurricane relief. The new man in charge is Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen (search), who joins us now. Admiral, thanks for finding the time to talk with us.


WALLACE: Since you took over Friday, and I know have been talking to people at all levels, officials, what changes are you making in the relief effort? What are you going to focus on?

ALLEN: Well, Chris, the priorities have always been the safety of life, and rescuing those people that could be rescued. Moving past that, we're trying to make sure that the evacuees and the people in the immediate area have food, water, ice, and make sure they have fuel for their vehicles, and the evacuees have shelter.

Moving beyond that, a number of things have to happen. As the water recedes, as you noted earlier, we're going from house to house, making sure that if anybody is still in there, that we get them out. There's still a search and rescue response going on. It is tailing off.

But to the extent that anybody's in there alive, we want to get them out. After that, we know there are some remains to be dealt with. We need to do that with respect and dignity. That is a combination effort led by local law enforcement officials with support from DOD (search) and FEMA (search). And we're working closely with the local coroner and the state medical examiner to do that.

Beyond that, we need to start thinking about the evacuees that are in shelters, moving them to temporary housing, and finally to permanent housing. And in general, we need to start shifting from a response type of a posture to a recovery type of a posture, and start creating the elements for this city to recover and rebuild.

WALLACE: Admiral, Republican Senator Trent Lott issued a statement Friday after the removal of FEMA Director Mike Brown as the lead officer in the Katrina effort. And let's take a look at what he had to say: "Michael Brown has been acting like a private instead of a general. When you're in the middle of a disaster, you can't stop to check the legal niceties or to review FEMA regulations."

Now, I know that you're an admiral, but are you going to be acting more like a general or a private, sir?

ALLEN: Chris, I can tell you I have specific marching orders from Secretary Chertoff. I'm enabled to make decisions down here. I feel empowered. I have the responsibility and the accountability to get this job done.

WALLACE: Let me follow up on that. How will you be able to cut through the bureaucracy when Mike Brown apparently could not?

ALLEN: Well, Mike -- I think it has to do with unifying effort, creating a common vision, and having the people that are processing purchase requests, the people that are outside looking at the events on-scene, working with local New Orleans officials, all understand what the common problem is, and moving at a light speed.

And sometimes you don't need two or three levels of review. If the requirements are set, you know what you need to do. Excessive programmatic reviews and things like that may not be necessary. We need to move at best(ph) speed.

Day before yesterday, there was an issue in Jefferson Parish where they needed 25 generators, and we heard that they had asked for quite a while and hadn't got them. When we went in and found out what the situation was, the generators were ordered in three hours.

WALLACE: So, fewer meetings and more orders, Sir?

ALLEN: You need both. Yesterday I met with the parish presidents around New Orleans. You have to have some meetings. Some meetings are very important. You need to put a face on this response. You need to interact with local officials. This is their town. It's their state. We're supporting them.

We need to be mindful of what they want to do. As we channel things in, it needs to be based on their priorities, and we need to make sure that they sustain the capability to rebuild these cities and be able to operate long after we're gone.

WALLACE: Admiral, does Mike Brown have any continuing role with Katrina? Do you have to check with him on anything?

ALLEN: Mike Brown is the director of FEMA, Chris, and they're the, organization is providing a massive amount of support. They are tremendous people, highly dedicated. I have seen these FEMA people just work until they are exhausted here. They are doing nothing but good things down here. I have the full support of FEMA, and I think things are working wonderfully on the ground here. I have all the support that I need.

WALLACE: Admiral, let's go through a checklist on the very latest from New Orleans. What's your best information on how many residents are still there?

ALLEN: We don't know, and I'll tell you the reason why we don't know, Chris. And I think it's very, very problematic to try and make estimates like that. We don't know where all the evacuees went, so it's hard to get a reconciliation of who left the city versus the population when the event occurred. We'd like to know that to a virtual certainty because it would give us the possible population of people that might still be there or to be accounted for.

But the fact of the matter is, that was not controlled, and we don't know that. We just need to go in as the water recedes, move house to house, and get a total accounting from every individual dwelling who's there, alive, or treat the remains with respect and remove them.

WALLACE: I know you don't control this, but I'm sure you're talking about it. How close are authorities to forcing those people, the holdouts, to leave? And do you think that's a good idea, forcible evacuation?

ALLEN: Chris, the decision on to remove somebody from their dwelling against their will is a local law-enforcement decision. There's been extensive conversation between the state authorities and the local authorities regarding that.

The role of DOD and FEMA in this regard, any other agency, the urban search and rescue people, is to support that operation. But when that decision has to be made on scene, it's made by a local law- enforcement officer consistent with their laws and their use of force doctrine.

WALLACE: And do you have any feelings whether that's a good or bad idea?

ALLEN: It's totally within their purview. These are authorities and jurisdictions that are state and local. We are here to support them.

WALLACE: Do you agree, and I know that this is a hard one, but do you agree with the latest estimates that it appears that -- and now we got your picture back. We lost you for a second, sir. Do you agree with the latest estimates that the death toll is apparently going to be far lower than the 10,000 that had originally been set?

ALLEN: Well, Chris, because of my earlier comments regarding our lack of knowledge regarding the population that remained when the event occurred, I never had any expectations about what the death toll might be. I've been involved in enough of these operations.

The worst thing you can do is try and guess on what the outcome might be. You just need to get in and work the problem on the ground. I will say this. We are finding many fewer fatalities than we had expected.

WALLACE: Well, that's good news. Let's talk about the toxic soup that was in the streets of New Orleans and also in those flooded waste dumps and chemical plants outside of New Orleans. As you pump water into Lake Pontchartrain and then into the Mississippi River, are you concerned at all -- and there may be nothing you can do about it -- but that you may be creating another environmental problem?

ALLEN: You're right, Chris. There are two issues here. One is where the water is going and what's in the water and what we do with the water that's there. Regarding where the water is going, there has to be some flexibility here and some variances on what the standards are. Otherwise, we're not going to be able to move forward and have a response in this city.

I can tell you that, in regard to the water that is in the city, there is extensive testing and sampling going on right now with the EPA. We're consulting with the Centers for Disease Control. There are a lot of infrastructure surveys going on right now. We have electrical grids, gas pipelines and that sort of thing. There needs to be a comprehensive environmental baseline established before we know how to move from what I would call responses to recovery.

We also have a city that sits below sea level, and the entire sewage system has be lifted up and pumped out. And quite frankly that may be the long pole in the tent before we're done, Chris.

WALLACE: Admiral, let's talk about money. FEMA has been spending up to $2 billion a day. Congress has approved north of $16 billion in just the past week. Who's in charge? Who's accountable for making sure that that money is spent where it's needed, and isn't either wasted or stolen?

ALLEN: Well, Chris, generally, and I'm moving into the larger role here, and I'll be getting briefs later on this week exactly how this is working, but I have worked with this system quite a bit before. All that money is distributed against a set mission and a funding line item under the Stafford Act (ph) in the national response plan. In each individual state, they establish what's called a joint field office. That field office is staffed with people that are trained in resource management, contracting, and so forth. So there actually is a structure on how that money is distributed and how the records are kept.

So the money that are allocated are always allocated to a mission with a specific purpose. And there's approval process associated with that. I'll be learning more about that as we take a look at what's going on on Baton Rouge and over in Mississippi and Alabama as I expand my staff briefings, moving to the larger PFO role.

WALLACE: Let me ask you about another aspect of this, Admiral Allen. FEMA has been giving out already almost $700 million in those $2,000 grants, whether it's in debit cards in Texas, which I know are about to end, or in checks or direct deposits. How do you know when someone comes in for their $2,000 that they really are an evacuee of the area?

ALLEN: Well, Chris, again, I'm learning more about this, but FEMA has a process whereby individuals register with FEMA for assistance, individual assistance programs by families. That is happening, and that is the basis for the distribution of those funds. If you are registered and entitled to it, you will get those funds.

The program in Houston was a pilot program to see if there was a quicker way to get funds into the hands of these folks out there, and they rushed the pilot in to test it and see if it might be of use. And in fact, a lot of people would rather have a paper check or an electronic transfer, because it's more useful to them to have access to their funds.

And we know from talking to local banking associations they're more than happy to cash those checks. So the majority of that money that's being distributed, which is $690 million to date, is being done either by electronic transfer or paper check.

WALLACE: And finally, sir, over the last two weeks, there have been all kinds of complaints about lack of coordination among the federal officials, the state, the local officials. Can you say today that finally, the feds, Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin, that you're all on the same page?

ALLEN: You never say never, Chris, but in the less than the week that I've been on scene down here in New Orleans in the last 24 to 36 hours, as I've been moving into the PFO role, I've been actually overwhelmed with the unity of purpose between the state, local, and federal officials. I'm standing side by side with Russ Honore from DOD, folks like Terry Ebbert, the director of homeland security from the city of New Orleans, the presidents of the local parishes around New Orleans. I've talked with Governor Blanco. I've talked with Governor Riley. If there's any seam between us, somebody needs to tell me, because I don't see it.

WALLACE: Admiral Allen, we want to thank you so much for joining us.

And best of luck in a very tough job.

ALLEN: Thank you, Chris.