NORFOLK, Va. -- Not long after terrorists hijacked jetliners and killed thousands of people in the terror attacks of 2001, the United States was hit with a sobering realization -- that an even worse cataclysm might yet come.
Take, for instance, a "dirty" nuclear bomb: Such a crude device could be made with radioactive material and traditional explosives, and it could enter the country via a truck-sized container on a merchant ship. It could detonate in a big city and kill tens of thousands, far more than the number of dead that September morning three years ago.
Nevertheless, an important element in preventing such a scenario -- shoring up security at public and private terminals nationwide -- has a long way to go. The Maritime Transportation Security Act -- passed by Congress in 2002 to make terminal sites more secure -- suffers from a fundamental flaw: It has no financing mechanism, and nobody wants to pick up the tab for improvements the act requires.
The Coast Guard has estimated that upgrading the nation's maritime sites and vessels to meet the law will cost about $7.3 billion between 2003 and 2012. But the $491 million in grants Congress has issued to ports and vessels to improve security in the past three years -- about $163 million a year on average -- won't come close to meeting the 10-year cost estimates if the spending patterns continue. For many sites, the new costs include adding security personnel, new access-control methods, fencing and high-tech surveillance systems, and periodic reviews.
The port industry -- the terminals, vessels and factories that ship goods out of the ports -- contend it's the federal government's responsibility to make up the difference. But the Bush administration says the industry should foot most of the bill. Congress has yet to find a way to pay for the requirements that it put in place two years ago.
The result: Three years after Sept. 11, 2001, there's still no telling when the anti-terrorism initiatives to shore up security at ports will be paid for. At the current spending levels, it would take 44 more years to meet what the act requires by 2012. "In other words, at this rate, the United States will put a man on Mars before it achieves effective port security," Joseph F. Bouchard said. He's the retired commander of Norfolk Naval Station and now works for ZelTech, a Hampton company helping to integrate the Virginia Port Authority's security program.
Other possible scenarios of terrorist attacks include taking control of a large ship and crashing it into a bridge; sneaking into the country by merchant ship; blowing up a vessel carrying volatile fuel vapors to cause environmental disaster; seizing control of a passenger ferry; and crashing into a Navy vessel.
To resist such events, the country has sought a three-pronged approach in the past few years: More patrols of harbors and vessels by the Coast Guard; better cargo inspecting and monitoring of incoming crews by customs and immigration officials; and better security at the terminals, factories and vessels themselves.
The Coast Guard -- the lead agency in port security and now part of the Department of Homeland Security -- has received billions more from the federal government since Sept. 11, 2001, and is spending thousands more hours a year on the security. It's increased security patrols in harbors and has been boarding high-risk vessels to check for security before they enter ports. Every ship approaching the coast, such as the 200 that come into Hampton Roads every month, has to submit a notice of arrival -- complete with cargo and crew information -- 96 hours before arrival. That allows the Coast Guard time to decide whether it needs to board the ship to inspect it or even ride along with it into the harbor.
The Customs Service -- now incorporated into Homeland Security in the Customs and Border Protection division -- also has been revamped substantially. A computer program once used mostly to track containers carrying narcotics has been altered to fight terrorism. The system comes up with risk factors for each container -- based on things like country of origin, exporter and carrier -- and helps decide which container to inspect