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Port plan covers terrorism

Homeland Security chief Chertoff, in Los Angeles, announces a strategy for a speedy return to trade in the event of an attack at a U.S. facility.

July 21, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Flanked by lawmakers and law enforcement authorities at a fire station at the Port of Los Angeles, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Friday unveiled a new strategy for the rapid resumption of trade after a terrorist attack at a major U.S. port.

As the U.S. Coast Guard gunboat Halibut idled a few yards offshore, Chertoff said the plan was "about making sure we spend as little time as possible paralyzed by an attack."

The 130-page Department of Homeland Security's new Strategy to Enhance International Supply Chain Security provides protocols for damage assessments of international supply lines. It also describes what kind of cargo and vessels should receive top priority based on public health, national security and economic needs.

The plan aims to streamline the maze of jurisdictions through which commerce moves, devise a chain of command and return into service key terminals, bridges, roads, rail lines and pipelines. The aim is to quickly restore the flow of commodities and goods, such as crude oil, clothing, car parts and medical supplies if a terrorist attack were to occur at a major port.

Even a brief closure of the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the nation's busiest, would result in economic losses running into billions of dollars, federal officials said. For example, the 11-day West Coast port lockout in 2002 cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1 billion a day and required roughly six months for full recovery.

Because the United States represents nearly 20% of global maritime trade, a chemical, biological or nuclear attack would affect economic activity around the world.

Under the new recovery strategy, the U.S. response to a terrorist incident would not trigger an automatic shutdown of all of the nation's ports. The plan instead calls for a prudent and measured response, keeping some ports open based on available intelligence and specifics of an incident.

In his third visit to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, Chertoff said that countering the threat of nuclear terrorism was a priority.

A nuclear explosion at the Port of Long Beach would immediately kill an estimated 60,000 people, expose 150,000 more to hazardous radiation and cause 10 times the economic loss resulting from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to a report prepared a year ago by Rand Corp.

A more probable threat, security experts said, would be detonation of a dirty bomb, a crude nuclear weapon designed to disperse radioactive debris over a relatively localized area.

Detlof von Winterfeldt, director of the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism, a research center funded by Homeland Security, said that "Our research suggests a dirty bomb could create cancer in tens or hundreds of people. But the economic impacts of the radioactive contamination could be devastating."

It would take weeks, perhaps months, to clean up a dirty-bomb site so port workers could begin working again, he said.

One challenge facing authorities is the volume of material coursing through the ports. Roughly only 4% of the more than 14 million cargo containers that move through the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex annually are inspected.

"I worry we are ripe for an attack, and a port complex like this could be the first target," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), coauthor of the Safe Port Act of 2006, which mandated the creation of a port recovery strategy. "Are we really ready?"

By the end of this year, 100% of all the containers arriving in the nation's seaports will be scanned for radiological and nuclear threats, Chertoff said. In the meantime, seaports are relying on year-old monitors that can detect the presence of radiation in containers passing nearby.

Chertoff, Harman and dozens of reporters watched a demonstration of a new generation of monitors ostensibly able to distinguish materials that either naturally emit radiation, such as granite and kitty litter, or pose a nuclear threat.

On cue, a container deliberately seeded with a sample of nuclear material triggered a prerecorded warning from a small speaker: "Threat alarm. Threat alarm. Threat alarm."

Chertoff acknowledged that the system was prone to failure in inclement weather and that small amounts of radioactive material could elude detection.

"We won't spend money on it until it's working properly," he said.

Later Friday, more than 500 people gathered at USC's Bing Theatre to hear Chertoff speak about "security in the 21st century," and the potential economic effects of a catastrophe at the port complex, which generates an estimated $295 billion a year.

"Cleary, if terrorists want to devastate our economy, then from a cost/benefit perspective, one way of doing that is to launch devastating attacks on those essential vehicles for commerce and trade," Chertoff said.

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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