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Fall/Winter 2004 Vol. 4 No. 3

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Photos courtesy Port of Houston Authority Secure at Sea

Key Steps for Rapid Response to Attacks in U.S. Seaports

A chemical tanker and a cruise ship collide in the Houston Ship Channel after being hijacked by a group of terrorists. This results in a massive blaze, a hazardous materials spill, casualties, and the blockage of the channel, essentially shutting down the Port of Houston to all shipping.

Fortunately, this incident is fictitious. But if it did happen, it is not clear whether the nation could bring together the adequate resources quickly enough to handle the situation and reopen the channel and port with the least economic impact, says a new report from the National Academies' Transportation Research Board. The equipment necessary to conduct such marine salvage operations has not been inventoried recently and evaluated in sufficient detail to document its location and how it could be mobilized rapidly to respond to terrorist incidents in major seaports, said the committee that wrote the report.

"If such an incident occurred in a busy harbor or waterway, water channels could be blocked for days before the situation goes back to normal, and this could have a major impact on the U.S. economy," said committee chair Malcolm MacKinnon III, managing member of MSCL LLC, in Alexandria, Va. "Since marine casualties in U.S. waters are at an all-time low, quantities of marine salvage equipment such as standby tugs and vessels have steadily declined for the past decade and are not available near most harbors, either, because they're too expensive to maintain."

To increase readiness for terrorist attacks at sea, the U.S. Navy's Office of the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving -- the agency in charge of DOD maritime salvage and underwater search operations -- should continue to work with the U.S. Coast Guard -- the agency in charge of maritime homeland security -- and with major salvage companies to rapidly identify which equipment is available to respond to maritime emergencies, the report says.

Photos courtesy Port of Houston Authority"The problem is that there is limited amount of specialized heavy-salvage equipment available, and because there is a limited amount, it is frequently in use," said Captain Jim Wilkins, the U.S. Navy's supervisor of salvage and diving and director of ocean engineering. "Availability of the equipment for immediate, emergency response varies from day to day. Our best means to keep up to date with actual availability of commercial heavy-salvage equipment is through direct dialogue with our colleagues in that industry -- a method that has proved itself over time."

To evaluate readiness, experts from the government, academia, and industry should conduct exercises in which they discuss terrorist scenarios and how equipment could be mobilized to clear harbors and water channels in the event of an attack, the committee said. Individual agencies -- such as the FBI, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, National Transportation Safety Board, and local fire and police departments -- should conduct exercises to test their own responses as well.

The report also recommends that the secretary of homeland security's National Maritime Security Advisory Committee include a marine salvage expert and that the Coast Guard's director of homeland security create a liaison position with the Navy's Office of the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving. Also, salvage expertise should be part of the National Incident Management System, a national plan being developed by the Department of Homeland Security to integrate prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery activities.

"The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as the attack on the USS Cole, suggest that support for national salvage capabilities should be increased," MacKinnon said. "We shouldn't wait for a major incident to happen to get a feel for the equipment required."   -- Patrice Pages

Marine Salvage Capabilities: Responding to Terrorist Attacks in U.S. Ports -- Actions to Improve Readiness. Marine Board, Transportation Research Board (2004, 38 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09459-3; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $29.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

Malcolm MacKinnon III, managing member, MSCL LLC, Alexandria, Va., chaired the committee. The study was funded by the Maritime Administration, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, Office of Naval Research, U.S. Department of Energy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

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Copyright 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences