America's ports vulnerable, even with more patrols
Airports capture spotlight, but seaports face risks - from cruise ships to trucks, tankers.
Buffeted by a boisterous wind, the container ship, Conti Asia is listing to the starboard side.Skip to next paragraph
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Wave-tossed like an abandoned, 50-story surfboard, the German-registered uber boat is approaching Los Angeles with a cargo of Chinese fireworks.
Out of nowhere, a 40 ft. pilot boat zips through the frothy wake and - both vessels still plowing forward - dispatches six men in blue fatigues up a rope ladder dangling from the supersize hull.
Three months after the country's deadliest act of terror, these men represent the new front-line defense for the seaports that, officials concede, remain all too exposed to covert attack.
The first federal "sea marshals," they will escort this ship into the nation's largest port, with guns, handcuffs, and batons at the ready.
The port they protect symbolizes the scope of seaborne security risks nationwide - and the efforts under way to control those risks.
In pre-9/11 terms, the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach was simply described as America's largest - doing 2-1/2 times the business of all East Coast ports combined.
Post-9/11, the adjacent sprawl of petroleum-tank farms, power plants, pipelines, and hazardous-waste facilities can be labeled, delicately, as a terrorist's fantasy.
"There are currently no national standards for physical security at American ports," says Capt. John Holmes, ranking official here for the US Coast Guard, which is charged with protecting the port. "We have them at airports where people enter, but none where the commerce comes and goes."'
In fact, nationwide, just 2 percent of all cargo, much of it arriving in railroad-size containers, is inspected.
Congress is moving fast to try to address the acknowledged shortfalls. Last week, the Senate passed approved some $700 million for port security upgrades nationwide.
The measure, still to be taken up by the House, calls for background checks on workers in security-sensitive areas. It requires ships to electronically file cargo manifests before entering port. It improves tracking of crews and passengers and expands the sea marshal program begun here. It also requires ports to develop comprehensive security plans, and guarantees $3.3 billion in loans carry those plans out.
The congressional action follows not just the terrorist attacks but also the finding by three major commissions in as many years that security at US harbors is softer than Achilles' heel.
A task force created by new Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn within days of the attacks called for measures similar to many included in the Senate bill. The task force also urged millions of dollars in new equipment to help scan opaque metal containers for explosives as well as drugs.
Other recommendations include a national database for truckers who enter the port, and staff increases for the many agencies whose duties overlap at the port: police, FBI, firefighters, immigration officials, and even the Army Corps of Engineers.
"The protection of ports has to be comprehensive and inter-agency," says Captain Holmes of the Coast Guard. "If I put 100 boats on the water and protect everything from my purview, that doesn't do any good if some terrorist can walk into the cruise terminal or drive a van full of explosives up next to a docked ship."
Touring the waterfront harbor here, Holmes lays out the hurdles facing America's largest port and, by extension, 50 other large US ports and 311 smaller ones.
Because this and other port areas evolved commercially, without a master plan, bizarre anomalies abound: Cruise ship terminals rise next to petroleum tanks. Hazardous-waste facilities closely abut residential areas. Highly explosive chemical storage stand a match throw away from overhead suspension bridges.