With $3.1 trillion being injected annually into the U.S. economy through waterborne commerce, it's surprising that it wasn't until after Sept. 11, 2001, that security officials began thinking about how a terrorist attack on a port would affect the nation. The $3.1 trillion figure from the American Association of Port Authorities is a startling reminder of ports' importance to the economy. The association also reported that port activities in 2007 accounted for $31.2 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue.

Before 9/11, port security mainly focused on keeping cargo safe, and the threat of terrorists using the waterfront to hurt the United States wasn't on most security officials' lists of urgent items for preparedness.

"Security prior to 9/11 was more about cargo theft and pilferage than it was about access control and knowing who's coming in and out of our terminals and facilities," said Bethann Rooney, manager of port security for The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "So there was a paradigm shift in terms of security before and after 9/11."

During the past eight years, port security has evolved to include new technologies and regulations. Ports also have been identified as part of the nation's critical infrastructure, and innovative steps have been taken to ensure their safety.

"To a degree, it's like screening passengers in that you're looking for the needle in the haystack of what bad things could exist out there -- anywhere from radiation types of materials to an actual nuclear device to a bioweapon," said Eric Holdeman, consultant and former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

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Elaine Rundle  |  Staff Writer