A nation's new recipe for coping with disaster
Insight & Opinion
A nation's new recipe for coping with disaster.
US port and public safety is shifting its focus from disasters and terrorist attacks to response and recovery. Matthew Flynn reports from Providence, Rhode Island
10 October 2006
DISASTER recovery is a central tenet of the US Homeland Security Act and the hamstrung response to Hurricane Katrina highlighted the poverty of emergency management skills in the world's wealthiest economy.
Terrorism and also weather risks were the focus of a conference entitled "National security, natural disasters, logistics and transportation: Assessing the risks and the responses".
"Have ports been allocating too many resources to prevention and detection and not enough to phases such as response and recovery?" queried Wayne K Talley, a professor at the Maritime Institute in the Department of Economics at Old Dominion University.
Most participants noted that five years on from September 11, 2001, and one year on from Katrina response and recovery are top priorities on the national agenda.
Equally obvious is the point that, whatever the contingency preparations, politics will trip up the ability to get things back to normal. The question of how much and where to invest in security has also turned up as a point of contention in the present congressional election campaign.
Rear Adm Brian M Salerno, director of inspections and compliance for the US Coast Guard, described the system in which the Coast Guard determines where to place its resources to address potential security threats.
He said the agency used the Maritime Security Risk Assessment Model in which potential targets, such as liquefied natural gas facilities or bridges, are assigned a number that takes into account the threat, vulnerability and consequences.
The Coast Guard has also moved to a system of local commands that are working much more closely with local communities. He highlighted several other areas of new initiatives such as federal government licensing of recreational boaters, restricted water space and offshore buoys to capture information from incoming ships.
Louis Barani, senior manager of security operations and planning for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, described some of the security improvements made since the 2001 attacks. The authority had installed an intruder detection system that monitors 45 miles of airport perimeters and has hardened all the support structures that hold up the George Washington Bridge "so it will not go down".
He explained that the Department of Homeland Security had established a "counter-measure test bed" with the port authority to evaluate new technologies that detect threats to railways and monitor aviation facilities, roadways and seaports.
The thinking behind risk modelling follows the old security axiom "if you look at everything, you will see nothing", a point that Stephen Flynn (see separate story) cited in his book.
Mr Barani said his organisation was faced with a proposed billion-dollar expenditure on security measures and spent about half that amount. It was also looking at hundreds of specific recommendations.
"The key to this is that we cannot afford to do it all right away," he said. "You need to list prioritisation and make good business decisions."
Senator Lincoln Chafee, who also addressed the conference, added: "We could spend the entire US federal budget on transport security and not attain a failsafe level of protection or an impermeable border."
He also warned against the dangers of over-zealous port legislation "impeding the international imperatives of free travel and free trade".
Such observations were welcome at an industry conference, but Senator Chafee is also facing a November election. His record of voting down Democratic increased spending proposals on port security is the main platform of attack for a Democratic challenger.
Rear Adm Salerno said that the US Coast Guard was supporting an "open port policy" to keep seaports operating and "not do what we did after 9/11" in terms of shutting down ports. "The fear factor is everything after a terrorist attack," he observed.
One delegate, Tay Yoshitani, did not think that continued port operations would be feasible should there be a genuine attack. "The government would have so much political pressure that the only alternative is to do something and that something would be to shut the port," he said.
Mr Yoshitani was running the air and seaport of Oakland during the September 11 attacks He immediately grounded all planes and took five days to get the airport into compliance with the federal emergency security requirements.
He is now an adviser to the National Association of Waterfront Employers.
In the case of September 11, 2001, the response was simply to follow federal government instructions on closure. Today, Mr Yoshitani pointed out that it might be wishful thinking for ports to carry on should there be an attack somewhere in the US. "If a longshoremen working in Los Angeles heard on the radio that there was an attack in Seattle, he would climb down out of the crane and go home," he said. "The local community would also pressure the port to close down."
Military delegates were somewhat more foreign focused in their prevention recommendations.
Professor Jeffrey Norwitz, of the US Naval War College, questioned whether the "war on terrorism" could be viewed as being World War III.
"If the world was in fact at war, certainly the world's oceans would become part of that battle space," Prof Norwitz said. "Pirates, as mercenary armed groups or surrogates acting on behalf of terror organisations, will play a unique role in frustrating marine commerce as part of a global war strategy."
He emphasised that the Al-Qa'eda strategy was to bankrupt the US.
Retired four-star general Leon La Porte also declared that the US needed to be on the alert for a perfect storm of a convergence of organised crime, terrorism and pirates that could launch a maritime attack on the US.
"It takes a network to defeat a network," he said, pointing out that the US has enough trouble to get its own government units to work together and the challenges were even greater for achieving diplomatic success in international security initiatives.
In terms of natural disasters, the Kobe earthquake was the strongest reminder that a natural disaster had an enduring impact longer after the physical scars were gone and the dead were laid to rest.
"As the media highlighted internationally, it was a heartbreaking disaster for the Japanese because more than six thousand people were sacrificed by the earthquake," said Professor Yutaka Watanabe, of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.
"The impact of the Kobe earthquake on the Japanese economy was not, however, caused by the 30-second shaking of the ground but by the aftermath of the disaster.
"Shipping lines can easily move to other ports, but those living in the city have to live in the city and suffer the economic consequences. "Even though the infrastructure recovered completely over seven years, the people of Kobe are still suffering."
A more encouraging case was the recovery of Korea's premier port city, Pusan, in 2003.
Super Typhoon Maemi, with a barometric pressure reading of 954 hpa and a maximum velocity of 56.2 m per second, made landfall at the southern coast of South Korea on September 12, 2003, and caused 117 deaths and heavy damage amounting to $4bn.
Eleven container cranes accounting for 23% of the port's capacity were either derailed or crashed, many resembling pretzels strewn along the quayside.
A prompt installation of new cranes that were supposed to be shipped to other ports allowed the complete recovery of port operation in only six months, which spoke volumes considering the fact that it usually took more than one year just to manufacture a container crane, said Ho Chul Park, general manager of Pusan Port Authority
Today the port has designed the container cranes to withstand winds of 75 m per second compared with the previous 50 m per second.
Gary P LaGrange, president and chief executive of the Port of New Orleans, was at the helm when his port was hammered by the most extensive natural disaster in US history.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged a total of 20 ports in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi within a month, Mr La Grange said.
A mere two weeks after Hurricane Katrina the first containership called at the port of New Orleans and the port was at 100% of its pre-Katrina performance only months after the storm's devastation.
Catastrophe models, until now, had been based on 100 to 150 years of past hurricane data, and the assumption was that the next few years would be similar to the last 100, said William Riker, president of RenaissanceRe Holdings.
Just based on "decadal cyclicality', risks were higher and there was evidence that we were in a higher-frequency period for hurricane activity than the latest 100 years of data would predict.
"Florida has the dubious distinction of having been ground zero in hurricane risk," he pointed out, adding that the two main industry funds operating there were "about 2.5bn underwater as well" as payouts far exceeded premium revenue.
Together with Berkshire Hathaway, Renaissance Re is the largest reinsurer for the US market. Even without such warnings and research, many state governments have seen the impact of Rita and Katrina and are on much higher alert about potential for hurricanes to tear their homes apart.
The University of Rhode Island, which co-organised the conference with Inha University, has agreed to allow the Red Cross to open a hurricane shelter on its campus. Such simple elements of better co-ordindation will serve Americans better.
"We in Rhode Island unfortunately neglected response plans," said Robert Warren, director of the state's Office of Emergency Management Agency.
"Over 18 months working with sister agencies we were able to build that up. Now we are working on the recovery plan."
It had to be an interagency response, said the executive, adding: "Police, fire and medical cannot respond alone." The mission was to plan for long-range recovery, he concluded.
Rhode Island is encouraging development on its scenic waterfronts, the very places where hurricane storm surges can be expected to do their worst damage.
The city of Newport is perhaps the most notable waterfront jewel in the US but Narragansett Bay is the Achilles heel in coastal defence of the "Ocean State" as
its car licence plates read.
US citizens are learning to live with the threat of hurricanes and terrorist attacks. What is changing is the skill and readiness to respond and recover.
"Rhode Island is a microcosm of the homeland security issues that must be addressed in other coastal states," said Senator Chafee.
"Rhode Island has the second highest population density in the nation. A disaster here, whether natural or man-made, could have especially dire consequences."
Ignorance of transport system 'makes officials do silly things'
TRADE security guru Stephen E Flynn says that because US officials do not understand how the global transport system works "they are prone to do silly things" in reaction to terrorist attacks. That tendency to overreact was what created the real crisis rather than the incident itself, he said.
"They have a woeful under-appreciation of (global transport), of the critical role it plays in our prosperity," he said.
Dr Stephen Flynn is a retired Commander in thye US Coast Guard and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In addition to his bestseller, America the Vulnerable, Dr Flynn was the principal author of a Congressional task force report America: Still Unprepared - Still in Danger.
If a "dirty bomb" of dispersible radioactive material to exploded at a big marine terminal and officials could not identify the source the nation's trade lanes would be shut down.
"The response, I can predict with 100% certainty, is that our government will behave irrationally from a standpoint of risk," he said, explaining: "We will close all our ports down and we will basically try to inspect our way to a sense of security."
The ripple effect of that would be the global trading system brought to its knees within two weeks.
"The threat here was not the act of terror itself," he went on. "The threat is how American policy will respond to a perceived breach of security that threatens the community."
He recalled a meeting in September, 2004, organised by PSA where he addressed the heads of leading shipping lines.
"Two things struck me," he said. "The first was that they were actually interested in security initiatives. The second is that I was the only American in the room."
He pointed out that there was probably no other critical infrastructure on which the US depended where so much was in foreign hands, pointing out that 98% of all ships calling at US ports were foreign while 60% of the country's container ports were leased to foreign companies.
He argued that there was a need to engage global partners on an unprecedented scale.
"Our government does not know how to sit down with foreign chief executives and talk with them," he concluded.
This article was posted on: October 10, 2006
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