Port Security

The controversy over the Dubai Ports World takeover of operations in six east coast cities has shone a spotlight on gaps in port security nationwide. The Port of Houston is no exception. Just last week, local officials went to Washington to ask for more Customs Inspectors. Despite that, the Port of Houston is believed to be better prepared than others in the country. Laura Strickler reports from Capitol Hill.

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At a recent Homeland Security hearing, 88 year old West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert Byrd assailed Michael Chertoff, the head of Homeland Security. Byrd is upset the White House says port security funding is quote robust.

"Of the 860 million dollars that Congress has appropriated for port security, only 46 million dollars was requested by the President. There's nothing robust about that. If that's robust, than I'm an 810 pound giant."

Lawmakers complain that only 700 million dollars have been given to ports authorities since 9/11 compared to 20 billion for airline security. Aaron Ellis, spokesperson for the American Association of Ports Authorities says ports are consistently under-funded.

"You get what essentially is a trade off, how much do we invest in security versus how much to we invest in our port so we can handle the trade."

But Texas Republican Congressman Mike McCaul says while he'd like to see more funding nationwide, Houston got 14 million dollars in last year's port security grant - the most of any port in the nation. McCaul says he pushed for the port to get the additional funds.

"Obviously we want the funding to go more to a risk based funding so that ports like the Houston port where the real threats are can be adequately addressed."

As a result, in 2005, the Department of Homeland Security severely cut the number of ports receiving funding, instead focusing most of the money on ports deemed at the greatest risk of being attacked. And that's Houston. It receives more foreign cargo than any other American port. Houston Democrat Gene Green says the petrochemical complexes pose a unique challenge.

"We have to always be on our guard to protect both protect from the water side but also from the land side."

The Port Authority says while they don't get direct funding from oil companies, they do cooperate. Even before 9/11 they worked closely responding to hurricanes and since then the cooperation has expanded to emergency response, port surveillance and cargo scanning. McCaul says newly installed scanners will help the port better manage its dual roles.

"You always have to balance the flow of commerce with national security and that's going to help speed things up."

The President proposes spending a total of $175 million in port security funding. But given the new attention to port security and the Dubai deal - the final amount may increase. For Houston Public Radio, I'm Laura Strickler on Capitol Hill.

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