Viewpoint -- Protecting Both Industry and the World's Ports

April 16, 2009
There are multiples holes in the fence throughout the U.S. and unless we patch them up, we are no safer than we were on September 10, 2001.

The recent terror attacks in India demonstrate the most glaring weakness in the defense against unprovoked attacks: the world's ports. This is of major concern to America's industrial base.

In Mumbai, an entire city was paralyzed by about ten men who approached on boats at night into the city's harbor and unloaded a barrage of gunfire and bombs in a carefully planned attack. Others may have been involved, but the lack of security at night at a nearby port served as the proverbial "hole in the fence."

Unless the world's ports substantially improve their security, the wide-ranging destruction accompanied by hundreds of deaths and injuries in Mumbai may be the first of many more such attacks. There are multiples holes in the fence throughout the United States and unless we patch them up, we are no safer than we were on September 10, 2001.

Since the 9-11 attacks, we've seen three laws enacted to address port security: the SAFETY Act of 2002, the SAFE Port Act of 2006 and the 9/11 Act of 2007. The acts provide for increased scanning of inbound containers for dangerous radiation. These are important steps. But the legislation provides what may be the most critical factor in determining the vulnerabilities of American business to a terrorist attack to any of our ports in the U.S. -- resiliency. Simply defined, resiliency is the capacity to survive a crisis and recover quickly.

For example, if a major power plant is disabled, most states have backup plans to convert to generators and obtain energy on an emergency basis from other sectors of the country. But what happens if an entire port becomes disabled, will the supply chain of American industry simply collapse?

President Obama recently outlined a major spending increase for government infrastructure spending. We in the maritime industry hope a significant portion will be used to upgrade the physical structure of the nation's ports while training local, state and federal officials in modern safety techniques.

NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly testified before the Senate after the attacks and confessed, "Even with the Coast Guard's assistance, we cannot fully protect the harbor, especially when one considers the vast amounts of uninspected cargo that enters the Port of New York and New Jersey. I have testified before about the urgent need for better port and maritime security. Mumbai was just another reminder."

In his book, The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation, Stephen E. Flynn claims our infrastructure is inadequate to protect us. "The source of our vulnerability to manmade and natural perils is rooted in our ongoing neglect of the physical infrastructure often heroically built by the ingenuity, muscle, and treasure of earlier generations. It also arises from our failure to invest in pragmatic measures that would better prepare us to respond and recover when things go wrong, and our tendency to overreact when we are spooked."

Flynn argues that "Washington has been ignoring the predictable dangers associated with acts of God, and barely going through the motions when it comes to protecting the critical infrastructure that underpins our way and quality of life."

The feel-good security measures utilized at airports such as taking off your shoes at the X-ray machine, for example, do little or nothing to protect anyone. I would argue they promote a false sense of security. To provide a real sense of security we must protect against all dangers from the rare (terrorism) to the more common (natural disasters).

Jena Baker McNeil of the Heritage Foundation claims "Resiliency does not mean that we need to forget the prevention-of-terrorism aspect of infrastructure. It simply means that prevention is not the end of the equation. We must change the infrastructure mission to one that aims to improve infrastructure adequacy across the board while protecting high-risk targets. If we lack the ability to accommodate the infrastructure needs of the population, a catastrophic event would stymie the transportation and delivery of essential aid -- whether goods or people. Well-maintained infrastructure can lessen or largely eliminate damage from an attack -- minimizing loss of lives and property."

McNeill argues further that the "free market" will supply the solution. I don't agree, look how well that worked for the stock market and the sub-prime housing situation. But her thoughts on improving our ports make a great deal of sense.

President Obama has a unique opportunity to improve our safety while rebuilding the economy. I hope Congress backs him in these efforts.

Joe Alioto is the Vice President of Veritainer, Inc. a firm that provides radiation scanning to containers at the nation's ports.

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