Coast Guard is on a new mission
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times,
It's just another day at the office, except the office is a 10-ton machine hovering 500 feet in the air like a giant metal bug.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew is on the job this Wednesday morning, whirling over the mouth of Tampa Bay, watching the ships come in.
They are here to take pictures.
The crew members are identifying cargo ships moving in and out of the Port of Tampa. They do this all the time now. It's part of the Coast Guard's new emphasis on guarding the coast against terrorism and other threats.
Terrorists attacking Tampa Bay?
"Before Sept. 11, there were a lot of things we didn't think were possible. Now anything is possible," said Petty Officer Paul Rhynard, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's St. Petersburg station. "We have to realize the threat is real."
Not too long ago, seaport security was not a top priority for the Coast Guard. Several other jobs, such as stopping drug shipments, came first.
Sept. 11 changed that. Security is now one of the Coast Guard's top two priorities, along with rescuing boaters in distress. The Coast Guard says it has not cut back on its other jobs -- yet.
"We haven't had to pull back from another mission," Rhynard said. "But if we have to prioritize, port security and search and rescue will come first, and something else would have to fall by the wayside."
On Tuesday, an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter took off from the Coast Guard's 41-acre Air Base at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The base sends aircraft as far as the Caribbean Sea, but this trip would be shorter.
The orange and white chopper banked sharply over the Bayside Bridge and cruised along the table-flat Florida landscape. It followed the thin Pinellas barrier islands down to Egmont Key and the shipping lane that leads into Tampa Bay.
The three crew members were checking out long, boxy working boats with names like Sulphur Enterprise. Potential terrorist targets in the bay include cruise ships jammed with tourists and container ships loaded with dangerous substances such as petroleum or ammonia.
In the rear of the copter, aviation technician Douglas Ayres leaned toward an open door and braced himself against the wind. He wrapped his gloved fingers around a tiny Sony Maxica digital camera and photographed the ships.
The ships' names and locations will be loaded into a nationwide database.
The Coast Guard officers have no way of knowing if their work on this day will ever do any good. It's possible that something they wrote down may turn out to be significant.
"It might help down the line, in some way that we might not even know," said Lt. Commander Marcus Lopez, one of the copter's two pilots.
The Coast Guard is asking Congress for more money for the rest of this year. Soon, it will ask for more money for next year. And its top commanders still are trying to pin down what exactly the Coast Guard should be doing now.
"What is our new normalcy?" asked Lt. Rick Wester, a spokesman at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. "What level of protection are we going to provide, not just now, but in years to come? How do we balance that with our other missions?"
The Coast Guard has about 35,000 people to protect nearly 100,000 miles of shoreline and 361 ports. It has identified 50 ports, including the one in Tampa, as potential terrorist targets.
Aside from air patrols, the Coast Guard has stepped up its boat patrols on Tampa Bay. Officers stop boats, ask questions and look for anything unusual.
One recent morning, Petty Officer Greg Tournour's patrol boat passed Coquina Key, went under the Sunshine Skyway bridge and into Boca Ciega Bay. It encountered a shrimp boat called Fool's Gold, whose captain, Alfredo Simon, understood the need for patrols.
"We don't like to see them sometimes," the captain said. "But sometimes we see them, they're heaven-sent."
- Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.
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