Retired U.S. Coast Guard officer Stephen Flynn is a prominent homeland-security expert and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He frequently testifies before Congress on port- and border-security issues and authored the bestselling book, America the Vulnerable, in 2004. He also served as an adviser to the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a task force led by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman that issued seminal reports on terrorism, including one just before 9/11. In a new book, The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation,
Flynn argues that ailing infrastructure like weakened dams, levees, and power grids-as well as America's underinvestment in homeland security-makes the country susceptible to a catastrophe that could kill thousands.
CONSIDER THIS. It's a warm Friday evening in June, and nearly 40,000 baseball fans are gathered at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park to watch the home team play the New York Mets. Most of the stadium's 21,000 parking spaces are filled, and, just a few hundred yards away, Interstate 95 is crowded with travelers heading for Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore. Just 2 miles due west, workers on the night shift are arriving at the 1,000-acre Sunoco oil refinery on the banks of the Schuylkill River. A light breeze is blowing toward the east-ideal conditions for a terrorist operation.
Three young men gather in a vacant lot in Camden, N.J., just across the Delaware River. The leader is a British national who spent much of 2004 in Iraq. Angered by the U.S. invasion, he traveled across Europe to Turkey and slipped into the country to join other insurgents. A second-generation Pakistani with a mechanical engineering degree, he received training in bomb-making from an Iranian tutor in Iraq and participated in two attacks on Iraqi oil refineries.
In the spring of 2005, a few months after returning home, the same man traveled to the United States. Having never run afoul of the law in England, his name was not on any terrorist watch list. Upon arrival, he answered the standard entry questions and was fingerprinted. With a letter of introduction from a radical British sheik, he found his way to a Jersey City mosque, where he met two Americans: an Egyptian college student recruited at a campus speaking event and the student's older cousin.
Working with a local imam, the Americans had hatched a plan to use a commercial tanker truck to target the Sunoco refinery. It's hardly a novel technique: Terrorists used a tanker truck in the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996, which killed 19 servicemen and wounded 372 people. In Iraq, trucks have been used in many suicide attacks, including the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters.
Thousands of tanker trucks operate in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The older cousin holds a commercial trucker's license and an authorization from the Department of Homeland Security to carry hazardous materials, a certification available to almost anyone with no criminal record or history of being committed to a mental institution. He works as a driver for an independent gasoline distributor. His cousin, the student, is also an apprentice painter with one of the thousand contractors working on the Sunoco facility each day.
Shortly after 7 p.m., the older cousin drives a tanker truck filled just that afternoon with a gasoline shipment across the Delaware River. His younger relative, who's driving a pickup truck loaded with a small fertilizer bomb, leads the way. About 15 minutes later, the smaller truck accelerates and drives directly at the guard shack marking the entrance of the refinery, detonating its explosives and knocking out the rollaway gate, allowing unobstructed access to the refinery.
A moment later, the older cousin brings his vehicle to an abrupt stop neaa large tank well marked with hazard placards. Crying out "Allah is great!" he detonates explosives on a suicide vest strapped to his chest. The explosion sends a ball of flame 200 feet high, killing everyone within 100 yards of the truck immediately. Secondary explosions kill or injure many more employees and contractors, crippling the refinery's ability to put in place its emergency response plan.
Two miles away, the fans at the stadium go quiet as the concussive force and noise of the explosion reach them. The umpire halts the game as officials scramble for information. By now, secondary explosions have ruptured pipelines to several smaller tanks that contain thousands of gallons of anhydrous hydrogen fluoride. Raging fires nearby cause the acid to evaporate and form a highly concentrated, colorless cloud, which stays close to the ground. The toxic plume moves slowly across the interstate and toward the blue-collar neighborhood north of Roosevelt Park, where windows were shattered by the explosion. The cloud drifts slowly toward the ballpark.
After a few minutes, officials on the loudspeakers tell the public to calmly evacuate and move north. With one highway closed for emergency-vehicle traffic, and another already crowded, gridlock begins immediately. Thousands of people are trapped in cars as the cloud drifts over them. Those who don't close the windows and shut off their engines draw in chemical vapors through their cars' ventilation systems.
The acid begins to burn the eyes and eyelids of the trapped occupants. Breathing becomes labored and painful, as lungs become inflamed and congested, depriving them of oxygen and leading to seizures. Ultimately, many fall into a coma. Without immediate medical attention, everyone caught in the toxic plume will die within 10 hours.
This is only a scenario, of course, but one that sadly remains plausible more than five years after September 11. Many people may be shocked to learn that an oil refinery has the potential to pose such a threat. Be assured that terrorists are not in the dark. Al Qaeda has been acquiring experience in these kinds of attacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia; assaults on oil and gas pipelines in Iraq alone cost that country more than $16 billion in lost oil revenues from January 2004 to March 2006. Terrorists have also been sharing newly acquired recipes for creating improvised explosive devices in Internet chat rooms. All the information on the dangers of anhydrous hydrogen fluoride and the vulnerability of the Sunoco facility can be found in publicly available reports readily accessible with the click of a mouse.
Increasingly, Americans are living on the edge of disaster. Like reckless teenagers, we have been embracing risks while shrugging off the likely consequences. We allow chemical facilities and oil refineries to operate right next to crowded neighborhoods without requiring the industry to use safer chemicals. We build homes on floodplains while neglecting to maintain nearby levees. We demand more electricity for air conditioners and computers while allowing the electrical grid to deteriorate. Our already strained first responders have little to no surge capacity to handle large-scale events.
This is madness. There are things we can and must be doing, right now, to make America a more resilient society. It's crucial we focus on strengthening our protections against predictable hurricanes, flooding in the Mississippi Valley, and earthquakes destined to occur in California's major cities. Terrorist acts, meanwhile, will never be eradicated, because they remain the most effective way for the weak to challenge the strong, but we've hardly focused on making ourselves less vulnerable by reducing the threat posed by our most attractive and destructive targets. Managing the risk associated with predictable large-scale natural and man-made disasters, unfortunately, remains far from the top of our national priorites.
Homeland security has become a decidedly second-rate priority today in a world where the United States has chosen to combat terrorism as essentially a military and intelligence activity. In 2006, the defense budget accounted for more than half the federal government's discretionary spending and included $16.5 billion the Pentagon requested specifically to protect itself from terrorist attacks. That means the Department of Defense is spending 10 times more protecting its own military bases, naval ships, and barracks-two thirds of which are located inside the United States-than the federal government is spending on our major cities. The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, is bankrolling a Coast Guard force to protect its vessels moving in and out of Puget Sound in Washington that is several times larger than the entire Seattle port police force, which is responsible for protecting that city's long and densely populated waterfront. Any objective analysis would conclude that terrorists would be more interested in targeting crucial civilian structures on U.S. soil than taking on the U.S. military.
Similarly misplaced priorities have allowed infrastructure like levees and power plants to crumble, putting our country more at risk for catastrophic, Hurricane Katrina-like failures. In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned grades to 15 categories of infrastructure based on hundreds of studies. With four C's, 10 D's, and one incomplete, it reads like a survey that could have been conducted on the eve of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Roads, dams, water purification facilities, the power grid, and wastewater systems have gone from very bad to worse in the past four years. More than 3,500 dams around the country are unsafe, and many pose a direct risk to human life should they fail. And nearly half of the country's 257 river locks, powerful gates that allow ships and barges to travel rivers that rapidly change elevation, are functionally obsolete, a number projected to rise to 80 percent by 2020. The U.S. power system is in urgent need of modernization spending, yet maintenance spending has dropped each year since 1992. Last July, a power outage in Queens, N.Y., left 100,000 people without power in sweltering heat for a week.
Because of the nature of our just-in-time society, which lacks essential redundancies and backups of crucial supplies, an attack on one of our major ports could be devastating. Most of America's major cities have been built around water for a straightforward reason: Ports are our economic lifelines, with 90 percent of our imports and exports moving by sea. Californians, for instance, depend on the daily importation of petroleum to keep millions of vehicles on the road, and at any given moment there is only a week to 10 days of refined gasoline available in cars, at filling stations, in trucks servicing gas stations, and in storage at refineries. The Port of Long Beach, a sprawling complex just south of Los Angeles, is the West Coast's most important source for crude oil shipments, having received more than 30 million metric tons of petroleum products in 2005. Despite this, in the past five years Los Angeles has received just $25 million in federal grants to improve port security, less than what the feds spend on airport security every two days.
Making them even more attractive targets, ports also play host to some of our nation's most critical and potentially hazardous facilities. Some of the world's largest ships, such as the liquefied petroleum gas tankers that regularly dock in the Los Angeles Harbor, would be virtual powder kegs should they be attacked by a small boat armed with the kind of improvised explosive devices in common use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another tempting target: the liquefied natural gas terminal that sits within 2 miles of the gold-leaf-covered dome of the Massachusetts State House. Once a week a ship more than three football fields long carrying more thn 3 billion cubic feet of LNG unloads at the French-owned Distrigas terminal on the Mystic River. To get there, this flammable cargo load travels over three tunnels and under a major bridge and passes within a mile of the homes and workplaces of approximately 100,000 people and Logan International Airport. Terrorists in small boats packed with explosives could penetrate the U.S. Coast Guard's half-mile no-boating buffer zone around the LNG tanker and blow holes through its side as it transits through Boston Harbor. The subsequent fire would incinerate everything within a 700-yard radius on the Charlestown, East Boston, and Chelsea waterfronts. There would be thousands of casualties.
So where do we go from here? Americans need to make building resiliency from within as important a national enterprise as confronting dangers from without. The first step is drastically increasing investment in the infrastructure that supports our daily lives. Although we are seemingly oblivious to the decay that is around us, China has stepped out in the opposite direction. According to the investment firm Morgan Stanley, China invested an estimated $200 billion, or 9 percent of the country's gross domestic product, in infrastructure in 2005. The United States, on the other hand, spent about $110 billion-one tenth of 1 percent of GDP-on infrastructure that same year. Tired of frequent blackouts, China has set up the world's largest electrical grid, more than doubling its electrical generation capacity from its 1995 level. It also built a magnetic levitation train outside Shanghai in 2003 that can travel at more than 300 miles per hour, while our own rail system is literally falling apart.
When it comes to terrorism, it's important to remember that terrorists are interested in carrying out attacks where they have near-certain odds of generating the maximum consequences. We are not talking about an unbounded problem. There are a finite number of meaningful targets worth attacking. Chemical facilities near urban population centers have the potential to inflict the greatest casualties; attacks on the electric grid, oil and gas facilities, major ports, and the food supply system have the potential to create the greatest cascading economic effects, at a price tag that would be in the billions. Defending the targets that would be most appealing to terrorists and investing adequate resources in safeguarding them are worth doing. Unbelievably, the Department of Homeland Security did not even have a good working list of the nation's most critical structures until late 2006-and most of the items on that list are a long way from being protected.
The expense involved in making our catastrophic terrorism targets less attractive is far from overwhelming. Lawrence Wein, a professor at the Stanford Business School, has determined that for a cost of $20 million to $30 million per oil refinery, sulfuric acid could replace the hydrofluoric acid used to manufacture high-octane gasoline, which proved so deadly in the Philadelphia scenario. Danger won't be averted entirely, but sulfuric acid at least does not form a dense cloud when released. The multimillion-dollar price tag for making the conversion may sound pretty steep to the average American, but that sum represents what Americans spend every two to three hours on the war in Iraq.
The LNG facility outside Boston would be considerably safer in a remote location near the harbor's entrance or farther offshore, which would mean tankers wouldn't need to transit so close to a densely populated area. If attacked, the fire would be spectacular, but the consequences would not. The Coast Guard should also reach out to the people who live, work, and play on Boston's waterfront to educate the very people who might witness a dry run or actual event. Our most important and largely untapped national assets are everyday citizens, who too often are kept in the dark about the details of potentil terrorism attacks. We would do well to heed Thomas Jefferson's famous admonition, "A nation's best defense is an educated citizenry."
From The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation by Stephen Flynn. Copyright B) 2007 by Stephen Flynn. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.
By Stephen Flynn