Miami Port Poses Security Risks

ByPeter Jennings

M I A M I, May 5, 2004 -- The great port of Miami is the cruise ship capital of the world.

Some 4 million passengers go through Miami's port every year. Likewise, it is also a gateway for trade with the rest of the world.

Millions of Floridians understandably want to live as close to the water as they can. And there are just as many recreational vessels in the water.

It, in some ways, is a security nightmare.

Rear Adm. Harvey Johnson is the commanding officer in the Coast Guard's 7th District, covering an area from South Carolina to the tip of Florida and into the Caribbean.

"Most people live on land, think on land," Johnson said. "But on the water, it is a much more complex environment."

Many security measures have been added following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Every cruise ship entering Miami's port now gets a Coast Guard escort. When it approaches, sea marshals board every ship to prevent potential hijackings.

"We'll have sea marshals there on the bridge with the captain and the pilot, and we'll have two sea marshals in the engine room, and then we'll have two other sea marshals on the ship," said Johnson.

Divers from the Miami-Dade County Police Department also search under the ships for explosives.

In addition to tourism, 1,000 seagoing containers from other parts of the world go through Miami's seaport every day.

The Customs and Border Protection agency has better technology now to look inside the containers without having to open them. The United States now has agreements with foreign ports to better examine containers before they begin their way into the country.

"I don't think that I know that there's no threat aboard [a] ship, but I think I have some level of confidence, that is maybe small but growing, that we know more about what's on that ship than we ever knew in the past," Johnson said."Our whole focus is to press that threat as far offshore as possible," he added. "If it gets to the port, it's too late. You're in the last line of defense."

Living in Harm's Way

As Floridians rush to live on the water's edge, they potentially move in harm's way.

"Every port offers different challenges," said Johnson. "You only get to be wrong once — 99 percent of what comes into the port is good. How do you find that 1 percent? That is the challenge."

There hasn't been a terrorist attack in Miami's port, but the illegal drug trade poses a constant problem.

Illegal immigrants also get through the security net. In 2002, 200 illegal immigrants from Haiti ran onto one of the city's main causeways after their boats landed on the coast.

Money and manpower are issues are key issues in securing Miami's seaport. There is never enough of either.

"These things take time," Johnson said. "9/11 woke everybody up in the maritime environment. And you see more threats. There's more vulnerability than we want to talk about."

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