Port Security: Anti-Terrorism Funding Will Never Be Substantial Enough

In the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks, Southeast Florida has received about $256 million in state and federal funds to shore up its defenses against terrorist attacks.

The money has bought Hazmat protective suits, upgraded emergency radio equipment, and paid for training for scores of first responders -- police, fire and public-works employees among them.

But the co-chairman of the region's Domestic Security Task Force says the federal government is still underfunding vulnerable areas like South Florida's ports.

"It's time the federal government get off its duff and fund security at the ports in South Florida and nationwide," said Ken Jenne, Broward County sheriff and outgoing co-chairman of the regional task force.

"The port is scary to me," he said. "In Broward, we've had a County Commission that has been willing to foot the bill to pay for concrete barriers and a harbor-patrol boat and other things we need at Port Everglades. But they get a lot of pressure for that money."

While security at the Port of Miami-Dade and Port Everglades is vastly improved over five years ago, there are holes. The federal government's philosophy has been that it's impossible to scan or physically search all cargo containers entering ports because that would cripple international commerce.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has, instead, collected manifest information on all containers, which is analyzed in Northern Virginia. Containers from unknown shippers or with unusual contents are often flagged for further inspection.

Still, it's estimated that less than 5 percent of containers are physically inspected.

MONEY AT ISSUE

Earlier this year, the American Association of Port Authorities estimated that ports would need $5.4 billion over 10 years to upgrade security. The Bush administration had budgeted $708 million, although Congress is debating spending more money.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that Port Everglades and the Port of Miami-Dade will get new machines later this year that can scan cargo containers leaving the port for radiation.

Some concerns linger at airports as well. There, debate centers on the effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration, which critics have dubbed "Thousand guys Standing Around." Congressional Republicans have capped the nation's screeners at 45,000, down from about 53,000 in 2002.

At Miami International Airport, the TSA trimmed the number of screeners this year, prompting the airport to lobby intensely to restore the cuts.

On the local level, one early hiccup in security planning has eased: Miami-Dade and Broward counties no longer have to compete for the same dollop of federal funds.

This year, for the first time, Fort Lauderdale was designated an urban area and received its own pot of money to distribute in Broward and Palm Beach. Previously, it shared a pot with Miami, and that city was responsible for splitting the pie. Turf battles ensued after Broward received only a 12 percent share of about $32 million in federal grants for 2003-04.

'MAKING DO'

"I don't think there's ever going to be a point where everyone is going to be satisfied that all their needs are being met," said Robert Parker, director of the Miami-Dade police, who takes over as co-chair of the regional task force this month. "We're making do with the allocations, and we've made a lot of progress."

Overall, Jenne said, the millions that have flowed into South Florida have made a difference.

"This community, this state is much safer than it was five years ago at this time," he said.

Amos Rojas, co-chair with Jenne and the special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement office in Miami, agreed -- although he also noted that there is always more to do.

"If it is up to us, we want to be 100 percent assured that nothing will ever happen here, but that's just not possible," Rojas said. "I don't think all the money in the world could do that."

Jonathan I. Solomon, special agent in charge of the FBI division in Miami, worked closely with Director Robert Mueller to transform the agency's culture after the Sept. 11 attacks exposed flaws in its sharing of valuable information about al Qaeda suspects.

Now he's working to help ensure the security of South Florida. In his mind, law enforcement is far more vigilant today than it was five years ago at all levels -- with an emphasis on prevention.

"We're absolutely safer in my mind because of all the changes that have occurred post-9/11," Solomon told The Miami Herald. "But that doesn't mean we can become complacent. There's still a threat out there. Certainly, if al Qaeda could attack and harm us, they would."

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