Aug. 12, 2003 – Since Sept. 11, 2001, "there has been a drastic increase in security throughout the United States," Sen. Lorraine Berry said Monday night at a forum on homeland security hosted by Delegate Donna M. Christensen.
"However," Berry added, "I don't think that we here in the V.I. have changed our way of thinking to include the possibility of a terrorist attack — and that can be detrimental to our safety as well as to the safety of those on the mainland."
Berry chairs the new Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee created by the 25th Legislature. She joined Christensen and local representatives of security agencies at the two-hour "town meeting" at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel to update the community on security measures within the Virgin Islands as well as address residents' concerns.
About 15 persons turned out for the meeting, many of them representing V.I. government agencies.
Christensen is hosting a similar town meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Curriculum Center on St. Croix.
In terms of federal funding, the territory has "been doing well," Christensen stated in her presentation Monday night. "The Transportation Security Administration has awarded us $3.4 million in port security grants, with another $5.2 million in monies allotted to such things as equipment managing," she said.
However, she added, this funding is "obviously not enough," as the territory does not even have a federal Border Patrol unit. She said the V.I. government is in the third round of requesting additional port security grants.
"We've also had to think about things such as drug cartels and illegal immigration," Berry said, reminding her listeners that federal authorities labeled the Virgin Islands a high-intensity drug trafficking area during the Schneider administration.
"There have also been recent incidents with Chinese immigrants turning up on St. John," she added. "Not only do we have to worry about dealing with individuals who are not wanted in the territory, but we also have to include the possibility of dealing with SARS, as these immigrants are coming straight from China."
Ivan Ortiz, representing the newly established Bureau of Immigration and Customs within the federal Homeland Security Department, explained the significance of his organization's work with regard to Berry's concerns.
The U.S. Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service "have combined in order to form one central agency to respond to problems like these," Ortiz said. "Now we have a system of centralized accountability which enables us to respond to any situation or investigation faster and more accurately than before. We are also more able to meet any present needs, as well as any future needs."
Ortiz added that past problems with directors was the catalyst for the formation of the joint organization. "We are now on a unique mission to one director," he said.
"Detect, deter and apprehend"
Tarance Drafts, area port director of the federal Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, similarly described that new entity within the Homeland Security Department.
"We are also operating under a counter-terrorism perspective," he said, "and we now have a wealth of information being shared on a daily basis which enables us to look at situations up-front and underneath."
Drafts described the customs service as the "last line of defense … We now detect, deter and apprehend weapons of mass destruction and those individuals implicated in terrorist activities."
He said some of his bureau's recent security measures include the establishment of customs inspectors at the world's "top 20 ports" in order to screen all foreign cargo going into the United States including the Virgin Islands.
He described the bureau's "Advanced Passenger Information System" screening program: "On the mainland, we have a list of all passengers prior to a plane landing, which enables inspectors to screen and analyze each passenger before they come off the plane. That why we knew who we needed to apprehend right away."
He added: "However, the system here in the V.I. is different. An individual is able to just walk right up to the counter and buy a ticket." He expressed the belief that the advanced screening system "is an effective security measure."
Another precaution Drafts related is cross-training for inspectors. "This system was born in the Virgin Islands," he said, "and what we have done is trained customs, immigration and agriculture officials in doing each other's jobs. This has helped us greatly … Recently, we were able to apprehend a colony of mango seed weevils going into the U.S. territory."
According to Drafts, "in this respect, this measure is important in securing our economic base."
Airport security issues were addressed by Larry Londer, TSA assistant director. "Our airports have new and upgraded equipment," he said, "and we also have continuous intelligence from various agencies. We have continued to conduct various table-top scenarios, as well as vulnerability and perimeter assessments."
Londer also described two programs in the planning stages. One would allow authorities "to identify individuals who require additional screening." The other would authorize the arming of pilots on the flight deck of commercial aircraft. The latter program "is completely voluntary, and we have been providing increased training classes," he said.
Community concerns are water-related
Concerns from the audience were expressed in regards to border and sea patrol.
"I can go to the airport and feel relatively safe now," one individual said, "but I feel the opposite when looking at the security around Red Hook and the ferry docks. We don't seem to be able to control it, and immigrants know exactly where to go to get into St. Thomas."
Capt. William Uberti, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office, said cruise ship and ferry terminal watches have been implemented.
"We have been provided with a 27-foot port security boat," he said, "and we have been patrolling these areas with the help of rotating crews. We have also taken on a program called Operation On Guard, which functions like a maritime neighborhood watch. With this measure, there is a ferry watch and terminal operators who look for suspicious elements and respond directly to an 800-number response crew."
However, Uberti said, more boats will be needed in order to make the security process more efficient.
Harold Baker, director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, suggested the use of "unmanned aerial vehicles" in aiding the Coast Guard locally.
"These machines don't need people and employ cameras and sensors which help in reconnaissance," he said. Although the machines have been in the national security inventory since the 1950s, there has not been a motion to utilize them, he said.
Maj. Gen. (V.I.) Cleave McBean, adjutant general of the V.I. National Guard, said a national reorganization process has incorporated Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force and Marine reserves under the auspices of the National Guard. "These agencies will become an integral part of our local and national structure, and this allows us to evaluate the local and national priorities," he said.
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