Port of Miami security agencies confident as cargo gains anticipated
By Zachary S. Fagenson
The security agencies working on and around the Port of Miami say they have the infrastructure and staff to make sure any increases in cargo volume that may come through the port in future years are scanned and safe for transport.
If not, necessary improvements, they say, can and will be made quickly
Work is currently under way on the Miami Access Tunnel, twin tunnels connecting Dodge Island — where the port is located — to downtown, that are to eliminate much of the truck traffic that today clogs downtown streets.
The ground in the cargo yards has been leveled and is ready for the rubber-wheeled Gantry cranes, which roll across the yards and pick cargo containers off the tops of stacks whenever they're needed.
At the same time, Port Director Bill Johnson and business groups like the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce are lobbying the federal government to put up $75 million to combine with the port's $125 million to dredge the port's South channel to 50 feet so it can accommodate the new, post-Panamax class ships that will be coming through the revamped Panama Canal.
The canal, once finished, will allow ships carrying up to 13,000 20-foot equivalent units, an industry unit of measurement based on the 20-foot containers ships carry, to pass through.
Currently the canal only allows ships carrying up to 5,000 TEUs to pass.
But the increased size of ships also means ports will need deeper water to accommodate the larger vessels.
Officials hope to have the money in hand and get started on the dredging so it wraps up at the same time as the work on the Panama Canal.
If this multibillion-dollar dance is timed correctly, some agencies here may be putting in requests for additional resources.
"In order to maintain the safety and security of the port we would need to have an increase in the number of people doing inspection of facilities," said Capt. Chris Scraba, commander of the Coast Guard's Sector Miami. "Every time you have more boats coming there a potential of more cases you're dealing with. We do inspections based on a particular port [a vessel] may have come from, and if they're not in compliance with international security it may require us to board that vessel."
Any additional increase in resources, he added, would have to be put in a request to Congress, making it a competition against other areas of the country.
Meanwhile Hector M. Pesquera, assistant director for safety and security at the port, said enough resources are in place to ensure all current cargo is properly scanned and documented and Customs and Border Protection plans to soon request added security hardware.
"We have a 360-degree envelope around the port that we monitor through radar that detects all ships with automatic identification systems," he said. Smaller ships are monitored through cameras.
"Also, for the first time one of the cargo yards we're working with, we now have access to cargo yard camera feed. Before we were blind in that area because each yard has its own security," Mr. Pesquera added.
If all the projects are completed on time and Miami manages to capture increased cargo flow, he said, most of it will be seen in the yard, which is Customs and Border Protection's responsibility.
The port looks to be projecting moderate increases in cargo flow soon but the dredging of the Panama Canal combined with the dredging of the port could nudge up that growth leading, to long-term increases.
"The near term ramp up in containers involves capturing more international trade that comes into Florida from other states, Georgia and California, primarily," the port's Assistant Director of Business Initiatives Kevin Lynskey wrote in an e-mail. "In the longer term we expect to have a stronger growth curve due to the deep dredge, which might move a 3% to 4% number up to a 5% to 6% number — a rather big thing over a 20 year stretch."
But with work on the port tunnel moving forward, Ruby Hogan, the head of Customs and Border Protection at the port, said two additional radiation scanners are on order and will be installed prior to its opening.
"Everything that comes in has to go through us in order to leave the port, and we do a 100% scan of cargo containers," she said. "We have the portal monitors that scan for radiation and we're also responsible for processing cargo inside the containers."
Once a cargo ship arrives in the port, its cargo is offloaded into the yard, the agency documents the container, inspects it, and clears it for removal. A truck picks it up and it passes through one of the portal monitors before entering downtown.
Ms. Hogan wouldn't say how many people the agency has at the port but said its best way of knowing whether it needs additional assets is to keep in close contact with shippers.
"We meet with the cargo carriers on a regular basis to make sure we can accommodate what they bring in," she added. "As soon as they make a plan we'll have to accommodate, but as far as any staff increases that would depend on what they estimate and project and would have to give us as much notice as possible."
If all of those moving parts, particularly the dredging and accommodation of the security agencies, can be successfully coordinated, the payoff to Miami could be huge.
"It's going to mean a lot of jobs and hopefully some transshipment cargo, something we haven't seen" in a while, said Hilda Torres, customer service manager at the Port of Miami Terminal Operating Co., which physically handles cargo coming off ships.
For example, many of the large vessels that come in from Asia stop in Panama, Freeport or Jamaica to offload cargo onto smaller ships to be sent to their final destinations.
That kind of trade used to account for 22% of the cargo that passed through the Port of Miami but now is under 2%, Ms. Torres estimated.
"Hopefully," she said, "we'll put everything in place in time for 2014 and get back some of that business."