Port Security A Concern As Funds Shrink

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Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, Bridgeport made its summer marine police unit a year-round effort to protect the port, where oil, coal, bananas and pineapples arrived on ships from Colombia, Costa Rica and Indonesia.

Police officer Ed Martocchio signed up for the harbor patrol, motivated by 9/11. Today, he remains on alert.

“I spend every waking hour and some sleeping hours worrying about them,” Martocchio said of terrorists, dragging his hands down his tanned face while patrolling the harbor by boat one hot August day. “What are they going to do next? Where are they going to do it?”

Martocchio, 43, boards tankers with the Coast Guard to check the passports of the international crews, giving him a front seat on the war on terror.

“I went from being an ordinary city cop to someone who can potentially have an international impact,’’ he said.

From 2008 through this year, Bridgeport, New Haven and New London have been slated to receive a combined $12 million in federal Homeland Security port funding since their harbors are ranked second in risk behind such large ports as New York City and Los Angeles.  The funds have provided training, cameras, lights, radiation detectors, a hovercraft and boats for the police department, fire department and harbor master, said Scott Appleby, Bridgeport’s director of emergency management and homeland security.

But as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Appleby and Martocchio are worried about a new threat:  federal funding for Connecticut’s three largest ports has been cut from $2.25 million in 2010 to $1.4 million this year.

A national pool of money that smaller coastal towns such as Waterford and Greenwich can compete for – given their designation as lower-risk ports – is also dropping, from $14.4 million in 2010 to $11.27 this year, said Scott D. DeVico, spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

The cuts may force Appleby to cancel a $350,000 emergency drill. New Haven has already scaled back a fire boat purchase from $900,000 to $800,000 and may not be able buy a dock for the new boat. Greenwich may not be able to buy video cameras it had planned for its port.

“It’s a huge concern for me,” Martocchio said. “You can’t afford not to spend this money. You’re only one incident away from no one ever wanting to come back to your city.”

The same sunny day at the harbor, Frances Miller of Long Island wasn’t pleased to hear of the budget cuts as she got off the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry.

“It’s a worry, sure, if they’re going to make cuts,’’ she said. She said she feels safe taking the ferry and is glad to see more security guards on the decks, “watching constantly” for trouble.

Patrols, Fences, Cameras In Place

For most Americans, tighter security since 9/11 means getting searched or scanned at the airport. But by 2003, U.S. Homeland Security officials were warning that the nation’s ports were vulnerable, in particular if a terrorist plants a bomb in a container ship.

Few container ships make deliveries to New London, Bridgeport or New Haven since most commodities come in as oil or coal or so-called “break bulk” goods such as copper and lumber.  Tankers still bear watching in New Haven, home to 850,000 barrels oil in the federal New England Strategic Oil Reserve, said Maggie Targove, the city’s deputy director of emergency management/administration.

“You still worry about bombs,’’ she said. “They can be carried in on the hulls of these oil tankers.’’

Her city has used port security funding to install cameras and add patrols at the port, making the harbor safer, she said. She would like to install more fences if the money holds out and is anxious to see the arrival of the fire boat even though, with the latest cutback, she may have to borrow a dock.

City police statistics do show that New Haven’s port is a low-crime area, Targove said. Since 2006, only five gunshots, 12 robberies, seven aggravated assaults, 45 burglaries and 40 vehicle thefts have been reported in the area.

Crime also appears to be low at New London’s State Pier. New London officials are vigilant about port security because the city has a large harbor, with I-95, Amtrak, Electric Boat, the Millstone nuclear power plant and the U.S. Naval Submarine Base nearby, said Reid Burdick, the city’s emergency management director.

Federal grants have allowed the city, the Coast Guard and the Cross Sound Ferry to add patrols, fences, cameras and boats. New London Fire Chief Ronald Samul Sr. is convinced that money has made the region safer, but he said those gains are being threatened by budget cuts.

“As the money starts to dry up and disappear, we’ll have to rely on local resources that aren’t there,’’ he said.

The latest budget cut will not jeopardize the purchase of seven police, fire and emergency response boats in Bridgeport, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Haven, Norwalk and Waterford. That’s because the boats are being bought with 2008 funds, and there’s often a two-year lag in receiving budgeted Homeland Security money.

Waterford Police Chief Murray J. Pendleton recently ordered a $465,000 boat with a Homeland Security grant that will also enable him to train his and neighboring police officers in using the boat.

Greenwich is buying a $600,000 boat to fight fires with seawater, lead search and rescue missions and detect chemical hazards, said Dan Warzoha, the town’s director of emergency management. Though he’s getting the boat, Warzoha said the latest budget cut means he might not be able to buy more video cameras for Greenwich’s harbor.

Pork For Ports?

When Pendleton was urging local officials to accept the federal grant for the boat, he was accused by a local web site of “buying a luxury boat because it has a head” – a nautical term for a bathroom.

As he found out, port security spending is a frequent target of critics.

John Mueller, a professor of national security studies at Ohio State University, concluded in a recent study that since 9/11, the U.S. has spent one trillion dollars on homeland security with little assurance that it was needed. He said spending on port security “seems to be excessive.’’

“You want the ports to be secure of course, but the risk of an attack is unlikely,” he said. “There has not been a very careful analysis of all the money spent on ports.’’

DeVico, whose agency handles Homeland Security grants in Connecticut, said the federal government has faith in the state’s officials.

“We have been able to demonstrate to the feds that we’re not throwing money away,’’ he said.

The state has taken a regional approach when approving homeland security spending, which has cut down on waste, New Haven’s Targove said.

“Before, people were just buying toys,’’ she said. “You have to think more regionally now. You shouldn’t be buying items for only your municipality or your own department.”

Scot Graham, a civilian port security specialist with the Coast Guard in New Haven, said in the rush after 9/11, the government could rightfully be accused of pork-barrel spending.

“Sometimes great amounts of money were given out pretty liberally and after the fact, we found out it wasn’t really needed,’’ he said. “That has definitely improved. We’re getting smarter in the way we allocate funds.”

A decade after 9/11, he said, Long Island Sound is well protected because of the federal investment. He said, “We’re more safe and secure every day.’’

One thought on “Port Security A Concern As Funds Shrink

  1. Port Security is important but there is a major point related to all federal security grants that is being missed. The program was never intended to be a continuous source of money for the state and local res[ponders and security people. The original intent was to provide a financial boost to assist municipal, state and private port facilities to make themselves more prepared and better secured. The intent was for all of the recipients to make security and response part of their business plan, thus pay for the items/programs needed to be more secure or more prepared. A particular item is rather telling. New Haven got funding for a boat because in part they claimed to have a place to moor it. Later New Haven requested funding for a new dock. Another example is Bridgeport.  Due to political decisions, Bridgeport has basically lost its status as a deep draft port and abdicated operation of the port to the Bridgeport Port Jefferson Ferry Company. Very little general cargo lands in Bridgeport yet the City continues to request port security grants.  Why isn’t the Ferry company paying for the perceived security needs?