March 19, 2002 – Increased harbor security demands are stretching the U.S. Coast Guard thin in the Virgin Islands and nationwide, officers in the territory and in Washington said on Monday.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the government began more extensive patrolling of the country's ports.
"Every cruise ship coming into Charlotte Amalie or Crown Bay is accompanied by a Coast Guard or DPNR [Planning and Natural Resources Department] vessel," Lt. John Reinert, the commanding officer on St. Thomas, said.
Reinert said it's the same story on St. Croix, where Coast Guard vessels accompany cruise ships as well as the tankers entering the Hovensa channel. St. Croix Coast Guard officials could not be reached for comment.
Because of the directive to accompany all cruise ships, the Coast Guard nationwide has had to cut back its work in the areas of drug interdiction, fishing boat inspections and catching illegal aliens. However, Ensign Steve Youde at the USCG public affairs office in Washington said that the Coast Guard is again beginning to work in those areas. "We are trying to work a little smarter," he said.
Reinert said the Coast Guard cutters that work in the Virgin Islands come from Puerto Rico. A vessel stays in the territory for three days, then is relieved by another ship. "There's always somebody on St. Thomas and St. Croix," he said.
Coast Guard personnel at the land-based office across from Kings Wharf on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront are in charge of dock patrol and other port security operations, Reinert said. He said the heightened security is the result of the national directive, not because of any threats in the Virgin Islands. Coast Guard vessels now accompany cruise ships into all ports, he said. St. Thomas is one of the nation's busiest cruise ports.
Lucia Francis, PNR enforcement chief, said her staff fills in when the Coast Guard is busy elsewhere. "Our resources are strained, but we assist to the best of our ability," she said, with personnel fitting their cruise ship duties in with their regular work.
In October, the St. Thomas USCG office added four reservists to its normal contingent of five people. And, Reinert said, the St. Croix office added five reservists to its normal complement of four.
Youde said the Coast Guard's security concerns are twofold: potential threats from people on board vessels and the fact that so many people in one space make the ships ready targets for terrorists. "We're looking at everything that could be a security threat," Youde said.
Reinert declined to discuss security on St. John, where the Coast Guard does not accompany cruise ships, because they anchor outside the Cruz Bay harbor. The island's low level of coastal security is evident in the continual landing of illegal aliens on its shores under cover of darkness. Reinert would only say that he worries "about everything."
The extra work costs money. In the days following Sept. 11, Youde said, the Coast Guard called in reservists at a cost of about $1 million a day. The agency received a supplemental appropriation from Congress of $209 million soon after. He said the Coast Guard's 2003 budget will be $7.2 billion, up from $5.7 billion this year. "This is the largest increase ever," he said.
Nationwide, the Coast Guard has 35,000 members. Youde said it has about 230 ships. "That includes buoy tenders and ice breakers as well as cutters," he said. The agency also has 1,400 smaller boats and 211 aircraft.
The Coast Guard falls under the U.S. Department of Transportation, not the Department of Defense. Youde said it is the only military branch with law-enforcement powers such as the ability to write tickets and impose fines.
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