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Former Coast Guard Official: Ports Unprepared

Feb 20, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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America is unprepared for the next big catastrophe, whether it's like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or like the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the author of a new book says. Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander, says ports like the giant facility in Los Angeles, are especially vulnerable to attacks or natural disasters.

Flynn, whose latest book is called The Edge of Disaster, says that an earthquake or terrorist attack on the Port of Los Angeles, one of the world's largest ports and a key energy transit point, would have a ripple effect throughout the economy.

"If you disrupt the harbor and the oil tankers don't come in, you literally run out of gas in about two to three weeks," he says.

Flynn, a security expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the U.S. government has made "important progress" in boosting port security, by inspecting containers before they head for U.S. shores, for example. But he says far more needs to be done, including disaster drills.

"One of the things that we certainly need more of are exercises that would test... if we have various scenarios, how would we respond? How would we clean up the mess in a hurry?" Flynn says salvage vessels must be available to respond in case an oil tanker is attacked, so that the port can be reopened quickly.

Officials should think less about security than about resiliency, Flynn says.

"We're focused almost myopically on preventing every act of terror, which is... frankly an impossibility," he says. "But what we can do, what we can control, is how we respond when terrorist incidents happen or when accidents happen."

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The first of a three-part series.

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