The Most Challenging Security Issues Facing the Port of Savannah

August 24, 2015 | Charles Bowen



Despite its elegant antebellum architecture, quaint squares and hospitality, Savannah, GA is a modern urban hub that is connected to the entire world chiefly through its port, the second busiest and fastest growing in the United States.

In 2014, the Port of Savannah handled over 3.14 million TEU container units and 332,989 intermodal containers, moving 29.4 million tons of freight. 21,000 U.S. businesses rely on its services, with the products passing through it reaching 44% of the country's population. With easy access to land-based modes of transportation, the port has been a major factor in drawing prominent corporations like Caterpillar, Lowe's, and Shaw Industries to Georgia. Together the ports of Savannah and Brunswick contribute $32.4 billion to the state GDP and support over 352,000 jobs.

In the past, Savannah has faced many threats from the sea. In the Revolutionary War, it was held by the British. During the Civil War, the Northern blockade decimated its economy. It rose again to become a thriving hub, but even today the city and its port face many new and complex security challenges.

In 2015, the Port of Savannah began an ambitious program to deepen its harbor to accommodate the ever-larger "mega-vessels" able to carry an increasing number of containers. While container shipping (the norm since the 1950s) has increased efficiency, it has also reduced transparency, with security for the TEUs at their points of origin out of the hands of the receiving port. 9/11 showed the willingness of terrorists to use planes as weapons, and ominously, a stowaway named Rizak Amid Farid attempted in 2001 to travel to Canada in a container with a bed, toilet, laptop computer and mobile phones. In 2004, the Israeli port of Ashod suffered an attack by two Palestinian suicide bombers who slipped in by hiding in a cargo container.

In 2006, the RAND Corporation released a report posing a worst-case scenario of a nuclear device sent by shipping container to the Port of Long Beach. If it exploded, It would not only destroy the port, but also the nearby Port of Los Angeles. 60,000 people would die immediately, with millions more rushing to evacuate. A string of catastrophes would follow, multiplying far beyond the immediate area. Not only would there be a horrific loss of life and environmental disaster, but there would be a severe economic disruption of both the United States and the rest of the world.

Thus, when dealing with port security, the stakes are not only high but they are increasingly widespread since container shipping links both land and sea. With over 100 trucking companies, 24 freight railroads, and the largest rail network in the southeastern United States, Savannah enables shippers to reach most industrial and commercial markets within days. A nuclear device shipped through its port could be detonated in a vast number of American cities.

Port security is no longer a local game played against thieves and thugs, but is increasingly sophisticated. Luckily, however, there are effective security measures that can be taken. Securing the global supply chain must begin at the ports of origin overseas where containers must be monitored through land transit, as well as at storage and loading areas. Containers not immediately put onto ships must be watched by sophisticated video systems with behavior and facial recognition software. Containers must be made increasingly "smart," able to detect the presence of hazardous materials, attempts to open them, and relay real time information on location and temperature. In addition, high-risk cargo needs to be identified, tracked and screened long before it reaches U.S. shores. It is hugely important for the government and port stakeholders to support foreign partners in their efforts to strengthen their own security, thereby improving the safety of the entire global supply chain.

And as port and cargo safety become increasingly tied to technology, the issue of cyber security also looms ever larger. In 2014, a U.S. port, never identified, suffered a seven hour GPS signal disruption that crippled its operations. Many shipping companies have been slow to update security for their computer networks, and there is a need for all players to integrate IT-based systems and personnel with traditional security operations.

According to Henry Willis, Director of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center, the horrifying 2006 report was intended to help ports imagine worst case scenarios and re-evaluate their own preparedness.

The Port of Savannah's security issues are those faced by all ports around the world. Their concerns and risks are no longer finite and separate, but immense and shared, and must be met together. Cutting-edge technologies must be supported by situational awareness, savvy leadership, and collaboration across the many networks and disciplines of public and private sectors. All must come together to evaluate specific immediate threats, as well as those that may arise in the future. They must process and share intelligence accurately, aligning an ancient industry with the fast-moving, ever-changing technology of the information age.

There is much need for the country to develop a strategic national freight plan, with funding to make it a reality. While the Federal Aviation Administration monitors all U.S. air space and traffic, there is no such program in place for the maritime domain, leaving the U.S. Coast Guard responsible for approximately 95,000 miles of shoreline. A hijacked ship with a nuclear device would not even have to enter a harbour to cause grievous damage to life, environment, and worldwide trade.

Shipping has undergone tremendous change since the classic 1954 film On the Waterfront. It is the underpinning of the modern global economy, joining with land transportation to connect all corners of the world. Its efficiency and safety has been greatly increased by technology, but technology has also enabled networks of evil, who have evolved from local racketeers to tech-savvy, multinational terrorists.

As shipping companies have joined together in recent years to effect economies of scale, port stakeholders must come together to ensure joint security. The challenges are technological, yet deeply human, with high stakes for the Port and City of Savannah, and places well beyond.

Topics: Logistics, Port of Savannah