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Millions in new funding don't guarantee security

While money is flowing to Florida to improve safety, law enforcement agencies say personnel, equipment remain in short supply.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 2002


While money is flowing to Florida to improve safety, law enforcement agencies say personnel, equipment remain in short supply.

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida, where terrorists plotted a murderous assault on America, has spent tens of millions of dollars over the past year to make the state safer. But experts see holes in the security net.

Seaports will get nearly $20-million from the federal government to secure their perimeters. Police and firefighters will get protective suits and headgear. Two new urban search-and-rescue teams have been formed in Orlando and Jacksonville.

The magnitude of the task makes the initial cost of nearly $100-million seem like a drop in the bucket. The flow of money is not keeping pace with the demands for personnel, training and equipment. Lines of communication have improved, but frustration is evident.

In Broward County, where the hijackers rented apartments and got driver's licenses, signs of an all-out war on terrorism are hard to find. Sheriff Ken Jenne, who heads one of seven regional domestic security task forces, says the only new equipment he has received from the federal government are 50,000 pair of latex gloves.

He said the cost of domestic security is being passed on to the local level.

"I don't think anyone is living up to their end of the bargain, except the local taxpayer," Jenne said. "The guy out there cutting his lawn over the weekend, he's the guy financing the local war on terrorism. That property owner ought not to be the one financing it."

Tampa police have been complaining for months that homeland security duties were straining resources. Now, a federal grant will allow the city to hire 13 new officers for that, and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office will hire 10 deputies with the same federal funds.

The U.S. Coast Guard has ordered round-the-clock surveillance of the waters off Port Everglades when cruise ships are in port. Deputies sit idle in a county patrol boat purchased for catching speeders, bobbing in the waters off the port and, Jenne said, burning out engines.

"The Coast Guard doesn't have the personnel or equipment to do anything," Jenne said.

There are so few machines to scan baggage in Broward that at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, more than 100 passengers are waiting in line at 7 a.m.

One year after the attacks, Hernando County is still waiting for the first dollar from the feds to equip a $268,000 hazardous materials team. Hernando, which experienced a courthouse anthrax hoax Oct. 11, is "not currently operational" for an attack, according to fire rescue director Mike Nickerson.

"Our tactical response to weapons of mass destruction is still substandard," Nickerson said.

Overall, Gov. Jeb Bush is pleased with the progress. "We're better prepared than we were," Bush said. "We've stockpiled all the medicines and equipment for any kind of bioterrorism attack, and our seaports and airports are better secured now than they were. I think we're in much better shape."

In the past year, Florida hired its first domestic security chief, retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Steve Lauer. Using a battle-tested hurricane preparedness system as a model, Florida set up regional task forces to combat terrorism and improve security.

The first response to an act of terrorism will be local, and each task force is supposed to be trained and equipped to address the needs of its region.

Lauer's work is focusing on improving communication among turf-conscious agencies, including police, firefighters, rescue workers and health professionals.

Bush signed an executive order Oct. 11 giving the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and its director, Tim Moore, the power to coordinate antiterrorism efforts. The order gave the Department of Health responsibility for improving Florida's readiness against chemical or biological weapons.

Florida is particularly vulnerable because of its nearly 1,400 miles of largely unprotected coastline, roughly the distance from Boston to Miami. It has 14 deep-water ports from Key West to Pensacola, including the three busiest cruise ship ports in the world -- Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Cape Canaveral.

When federal officials made available $93-million for port improvements, Florida's seaports got more money than any other state: $19.7-million, or the equivalent of 21 cents of every federal port-security dollar.

The Tampa Port Authority asked for $7.9-million and will get $3.5-million to build a more secure main gate, install fencing, lighting and a closed-circuit TV surveillance system. Two entrance gates are being merged into one in what is now an empty field.

The focus on seaport security predated Sept. 11. Months before, a law took effect setting minimum security standards at ports and requiring criminal background checks for new employees.

Before the attacks, the biggest worries were cargo theft and drug trafficking. Now, thanks to federal money, ports are adding chain-link fences and closed-circuit TV cameras, and armed officers watch what used to be some of Florida's loneliest real estate.

Shocked at how easily the hijackers obtained crucial identification, state officials wrote new rules for non-citizens seeking driver's licenses who are not students or hold work permits. Their licenses now expire with their visas. Clerks also must copy all legal documents used by non-citizens who apply for a license.

On the highways, two new high-tech trucks equipped with gamma ray machines can look inside vehicles for bombs or contraband at state inspection stations. The state is spending $1.2-million to buy $300 hazardous materials suits for all of Florida's 40,000 police officers.

The state budget contains $94-million for domestic security, mostly for equipment. The total includes $22-million in state tax money, with the rest from Washington. An additional $46-million in federal money is for public health improvements to Florida's bioterrorism plans, lab research and public awareness efforts, said Dr. John Agwunobi, director of the state Health Department.

"We'll never have enough money in terms of our ability to provide all of the public health needs of individuals in Florida," Agwunobi said. "Domestically, I think, we're doing pretty well. I think we have enough to get the work that we're doing done."

Another concern is the potential for contamination of food shipments to Florida. Though there have been no direct threats against food supplies, food is considered vulnerable. "It is possible to introduce a food-borne pathogen into our state for the purpose of harming our citizens," Lauer said.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson convened a Food Safety Task Force and said a new policy of stopping all rental trucks yielded a cache of stolen cars, tractors and motors. Bronson got something his predecessors could not: a new inspection station in Pensacola.

When it opens late next year, the station will inspect the loads of eastbound food trucks. The westernmost station was in Madison, 60 miles east of Tallahassee, so a truck full of contraband could travel 250 miles in Florida before encountering a station.

"While it's not bombs and bullets, it's just as dangerous not to be prepared to handle disease outbreaks that can be transferred to humans, food contamination issues, bacterias, viruses, those types of things," said Bronson.

Not every antiterrorism proposal found a friendly audience. Bronson asked the Legislature for $250,000 for global positioning technology to track movement of livestock, zoos, humane societies and veterinary clinics. Legislators rejected it, despite Bronson's warnings that some bioterrorism threats are transmitted from animals to people.

In the name of security, lawmakers filed dozens of bills to restrict access to public information. Some had widespread support, such as keeping secret security plans for all government buildings or the precise locations of small pox vaccine and other medicines.

Many others were considered excessive and were killed.

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, credited Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, for putting public records exemptions under a microscope.

In all, lawmakers proposed 125 new exemptions to public records or meetings. About a dozen passed.

Nearly a year after the attacks, the face of hijacker Mohamed Atta is etched into the American consciousness. But before he steered a jetliner into the World Trade Center, Atta blended into the facelessness of South Florida. He even had a brush with a deputy sheriff who ticketed him for driving without a license in Broward.

Local authorities said Atta's name was not on a federal "watch list," so he escaped detection. Lauer said such a situation could reoccur despite heightened security.

"It is possible that if an individual is not on a list somewhere, we could not find him," Lauer said. "But with what we are doing now, with the very significant work we're doing with information sharing, we believe we are better positioned than we have ever been to ensure that if that should occur again, the system will flag him for further investigation."

"We have a lot of work to do yet," the FDLE's Moore said. "We've done some good things. We've got a good start, we're out of the chute strong, we've got momentum. But a lot remains to be done."

-- Times staff writer David Karp and researchers Caryn Baird, Kitty Bennett and Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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