Accessing North Carolina’s seaports in Wilmington and Morehead City will get more complicated over the next few months, but the short-term inconveniences will lead to physical and technological improvements state and local officials believe are necessary for long-term security from terrorists.

Using a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the N.C. State Ports Authority is implementing major upgrades to both ports, based on a comprehensive security assessment conducted in late 2002. The study revealed physical vulnerabilities at the sites as well as the need to identify and track people accessing the ports from both land and sea.

A design-engineering group from Oklahoma City has been hired to determine the most efficient way to spend the money for the necessary equipment and services, said Doug Campen, director of safety and security for the ports authority. The grant dictates that the enhancements be completed by July, but Campen said NCSPA will request an extension.

Main security gates top the list

The two ports cater to different types of cargo, but their security needs are virtually the same, Campen said. First on the NCSPA’s priority list is to move and redesign the main security gates at each facility in order to fortify and secure the main entry and exit corridor. Because local highways lead straight to the gates, there’s no space for inspections or searches without hampering the public. The existing system dates to 1945, when the General Assembly created the agency.

The upgrades are welcome news to Mike Addertion, director of emergency management for Carteret County, home to the Morehead City port. He considers the site attractive to terrorists, with perimeter security a primary concern. “For potential targets, a port is probably number one because of military use and economic impact,” he said.

The port, four miles from the ocean along the Newport River and Bogue Sound, serves as a shipping point primarily for raw materials such as rubber and scrap metal, rather than the finished products that typically flow in and out of Wilmington.

New ID cards required

After visitors and employees reach the new gates, they will be required to show a new ports authority identification card to gain entry. No tracking system currently exists for the 1,000 to 1,200 staff, visitors, tenant employees, and longshoremen, who move on and off, and around, port property.

“We have to start over on them. We have to go to the company where they’re working and get information and verification in writing that people work for them,” Campen said of what will be needed to implement the new system. A government document, such as a driver’s license, Social Security card, or birth certificate, will be required of every person considered for a port I.D.

Crewmembers of docking ships will also be scrutinized and tracked with the system. Currently, the ports authority receives a crew list 96 hours before the ship’s arrival. Shore passes are prepared and distributed, but because the ship’s captain is mandated by law to keep crew passports on the vessel, those leaving foreign ships for shore don’t have picture identification with them. “We want to have a way to track these people,” Campen said. “In the event he jumps ship or doesn’t want to come back, we’ll have a picture I.D” to give to law enforcement or government officials.

Addertion thinks the cards also will address a key safety issue: locating people during an emergency. He wants to avoid the confusing situation faced by emergency workers in New York City when the World Trade Center was attacked Sept. 11, 2001. Frantic relatives desperate to determine whether their loved ones were inside one of the towers, or had been off the premises, carried photos down the streets, searching for anyone who had seen their family members. The card system will eliminate that uncertainty.

“At any given time, we could tell who was on property and who wasn’t, this is who came to work today, where they are, etc. In the emergency response business, that would be important,” Addertion said.

Activity on ports property will be monitored by a grant-funded closed-circuit television system. A high-tech intrusion detector system will help command center staff recognize and locate security breaches, a feature Campen looks forward to. “There’s all kinds of new technology available,” he said. “It will be a tremendous boost to our security.”

Rounding out the items to be purchased with the grant are sophisticated lighting systems for both ports, including generator backup, and portable concrete barriers to protect ships. The barriers will be placed near vessels that need extra security — mainly Navy ships — and will provide protection from attacks such as a car bomb.

Threat from containerized cargo

While the new measures will make the landside of the ports less of a soft target for terrorists, concerns about seaside threats from container ships and their cargo remain on the minds of security experts and local first-responders. Cargo security measures are already in place, but officials concede that no system can completely eliminate threats.

The ports authority examines the paper work of all containerized cargo. The container numbers and seal numbers must match the shipper’s manifest. If anything is amiss, the shipper must reconcile the discrepancy before the cargo is cleared.

However, only the containers deemed “high risk” are physically opened and visually inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency with that responsibility. John Quealy, area port director for the agency, cited security concerns in declining to reveal the exact percentage of cargo that meets the high-risk definition. He said the agency uses an automated system to target cargo for visual inspection, looking at among other things, the country of origin and countries it passed through before its arrival in North Carolina.

It’s the unknowns of containerized cargo that concern Warren Lee, director of emergency management of New Hanover County, home to the Wilmington port. “That presents a lot of opportunity for mischief,” Lee said. “We’ve made great strides and done a lot of things necessary, but there are always going to be weaknesses, but I think we’ve come a long way.”

A prominent homeland security analyst agrees, but cautions against falling prey to a numbers game that equates mass inspections with safety.

James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, believes it’s a mistake to waste time and money screening as much cargo as possible, like the airlines screen people and baggage. That approach would severely impede commerce in an era when the United States is becoming more dependent on maritime trade. “The measure of our effectiveness shouldn’t be how much cargo we inspect, but are we inspecting the right cargo,” he said. “Security at the port begins with the CIA trying to find terrorists.”

The threat posed by containerized cargo is clear to the ports authority as well, even though it doesn’t play a role in visual inspections. The agency has applied for an additional $9.2 million Homeland Security grant to supplement the $4.9 million that is already on the way.

At the top of the wish list is a container radiation detection system that would be affixed to the crane that lifts containers from cargo ships. News on the new grant request is expected any day.

Martinez is an associate editor at Carolina Journal.