D.C. Outlook: Ports on alert

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 1, 2002


American law enforcement was forced to re-evaluate priorities and plans following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Since the tragic events of that day, significant strides have been made to improve the overall security of our nation. Federal, state, municipal and private law enforcement agencies are working together to fight crime, prevent more terrorist acts, and leave no stone unturned in the search for vulnerable points in our borders, skies, roads and waterways. Our waterways are perhaps the most vulnerable.

Each year, eight million passengers and 11 million shipping containers enter the United States through our seaports. America’s waterways, from which 95 percent of U.S. International trade arrives, contribute more than $750 billion to the U.S. Gross domestic product and create 13 milion jobs nationwide. Unfortunately, funding and personnel shortages only allow for 1 to 2 percent of all inbound containers to be checked by U.S. Customs.

Today, responsibility for building secure seaports rests with state governments, their respective port authorities and the private sector. In Louisiana alone, seaport security officers must oversee the shipment of cargo along the Mississippi River, the Port of New Orleans, Lake Charles, Southern Louisiana, Baton Rouge, and other ports that serve as major arteries to import and export U.S. Goods every day.

Until recently, the security of our sea and river ports has rarely been the focus of our national security plans. We have done far too little to ensure the goods and people arriving at our ports do not jeopardize the safety of those who live and work close by. In the months following Sept. 11, maritime security has, for the first time, been under intense scrutiny as government and law enforcement face new threats of terrorism.

Historically, our port security system was often a poor model for national security when we were fighting drugs and international smuggling. This system is equally inadequate as we face the threat of terrorism. A unified federal plan for overseeing our waterways must be implemented to improve seaport safety. I fear that if everyone is in charge than no one is in charge.

As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine, and as a resident of a state that relies on the smooth operation of its waterways and ports, maritime security is one of my biggest concerns.

The Senate unanimously passed a bill to fund and authorize the hiring of more security officers, more cargo screening equipment and the building of important security infrastructure at our seaports. The Port and Maritime Security Act, which I co-sponsored, still must pass in the House of Representatives.

Thousands of Louisianians earn their living from our waterways. With this in mind, I recently conducted a series of field hearings in Florida, Houston and back home in New Orleans, to meet the dedicated men and women who work hard to keep our seaports safe every day. These Southern port visits allowed me to tour maritime facilities and see first hand the security measures now in place. Our field hearings served as an opportunity to hear from many directly impacted by our public policies to improve port security.

I will continue to work to ensure port security remains on the radar screens of all lawmakers a well as the American public. I commend those whose fast actions and long hours have helped make our seaports safer in these trying times.

JOHN BREAUX represents Louisiana in the United States Senate.