June 28, 2006

Ports need recovery plans
Restoring service quickly would be vital to fending off an attack's economic repercussions, a think tank says in a report.

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. seaports, such as the huge Long Beach-Los Angeles complex, remain vulnerable to a terrorist strike that could inflict billions of dollars in economic loss, a study by a California think tank warned Tuesday.

But the report released by the Public Policy Institute of California went beyond the usual advocacy of additional security measures at the ports to urge authorities to develop detailed plans to restore service quickly after a terrorist strike.

Blue Moon Saloon

"No matter what we do to protect the ports, it will not be enough to ensure -- absolutely -- against an attack at some location," said Jon Haveman, PPIC program director and co-editor of the 294-page report.

The ports are a concern because they can serve as conduits into the country for terrorist weapons and also are attractive targets for attacks because of the critical role they play in the U.S. economy, the report noted.

The nation's 361 seaports handle 80 percent of U.S. international trade measured by weight and 41 percent by value, the report said.

"Temporarily shutting down a major U.S. port could import significant economic costs throughout not only the United States but also the world," it said, noting that Osama bin Laden has listed damaging the American economy as a key goal of al-Qaida's attacks.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach combined are the largest in the United States and the fifth largest in the world based on the volume of cargo passing through the separately run but adjoining facilities.

Including Oakland, the California ports handle 40 percent of the 20 million cargo containers passing through U.S. ports annually. And they process 43 percent of the foreign-loaded containers, which are considered the biggest threat for containing a terrorist weapon.

The ultimate fear is that some day one of those large steel shipping boxes could hide a crude nuclear weapon.

The PPIC report, titled "Protecting the Nation's Seaports: Balancing Security and Cost," contained presentations by a dozen experts, most of them from California universities and think tanks.

The experts disagree on the economic impact of a terrorist attack on a major port. One of the presentations predicted a relatively small and short-duration economic disruption.

But another estimated that a significant disruption of the Long Beach-Los Angeles mega-ports could cost the U.S. economy $45 billion -- with 64 percent of the effect felt within the five-county Los Angeles metropolitan area -- and the loss of 208,000 jobs, including 101,000 in L.A.

Before the 9-11 attacks, security at the ports was labeled "poor to fair" and efforts to improve security since then were handicapped by that previous neglect, the report said.

Tightening security also is made difficult by a number of other factors, including the huge volume of containers and other cargo, and jurisdictional conflicts among the federal, state and local governments and private entities that are involved in major ports' operations.

Because of the complexity of the security challenge at the ports, the report advocates a "layered defense" including intelligence collection; cooperation with foreign governments and shipping interests to extend defense measures far from the U.S. coastline; tighter control of who has access to the ports and cargo; and improved technology to screen and track containers.

But the authors argue that all the anti-terrorism efforts have overlooked the crucial need to be prepared to recover from an attack and to restore port activities as quickly as possible.

Most emergency response plans at the ports were developed to deal with natural disasters and are inadequate for a terrorist attack that could involve a weapon of mass destruction that would make large areas unapproachable, the report said.