Since Sept. 11, 2001, ports have been given $565 million to beef up security, but where that money goes and what it goes for has been subject for debate.
Ports are still trying to achieve compliance with the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002's new standards for waterside surveillance, cargo screening, personnel improvements and regional planning.
Meanwhile, lawmakers, ports and the Department of Homeland Security are debating whether there is enough funding to cover every shoreline and how best to determine the danger to each individual port.
No foolproof formula exists for evaluating which would be the most likely target for terrorist activity.
"We share the concerns about the way this (new) program's been proposed," said Mark McAndrews, director of the Port of Pascagoula.
McAndrews said his port, which ranked 23rd in the nation for cargo volume in 2003, has received nearly $800,000 from DHS since the grant program began.
That has been enough, he added, to cover the cost of compliance with the MTSA. As for the new security standards DHS continues to issue, "we'll address those as they emerge. We have upgraded our security personnel, let me just put it that way."
A recent internal audit at DHS found less than 25 percent of the port security grants it gave between June 2002 and the end of 2003 were used for their intended purpose, if used at all.
In addition, President Bush's budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts in October kills the port security grant program outright, asking ports to compete with trains, planes and other transit powers for one $600 million pool of protection money.
"Funding is so inconsistent at the individual port levels," said Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities. "It's not enabling them to make investments in infrastructure."
Coastal-state lawmakers are in increasing agreement, with one senior senator calling ports the "soft underbelly" of the homeland security system.
Officials agreed a port's size, the type of cargo it handles and special features such as the military training base that adjoins the Port of Pascagoula are all deemed crucial. But small container ports - such as Gulfport - are not, even though cargo containers are considered an ideal target for terrorists.
Building a port workforce skilled enough to recognize and disarm potential threats before they affect coastal communities would appear to be a universal goal, yet DHS grant money is ostensibly allotted based on "critical need," a vague designation in the eyes of many port directors.
"How do you apply the definition of critical need?" asked Don Allee, executive director of the State Port Authority in Gulfport. "How can you say one port is more important than another, more vulnerable than another?"
The distinction between Pascagoula-style bulk ports, carrying heavy items such as oil and shipbuilding parts, and Gulfport-style container ports, carrying light commercial items such as food and toys, often goes unnoted.
Gulfport, the third-largest container port in the Gulf, did not make the Pentagon's list of 14 at-risk ports. Although the list remains classified, small port directors cringe at the notion their jobs are less important than those of their New York and Los Angeles counterparts.
"Somebody may look at me on the surface and say, 'small port, not a critical seaport,' yet I'm moving over 200,000 containers a year and everybody keeps saying a container's going to make a good vehicle for some type of terrorist activity," Allee said.
Ideally, increased hiring of port security guards would go hand in hand with training. After a Baltimore Sun investigation earlier this year found staff at that city's port routinely sleeping on the job, however, port directors acknowledged the need for better-educated workers.
"I hate to sound like a Cub Scout, but 'be prepared,' " said Allee. "And I think we're doing that."