Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard came face-to-face with gaps in security that had never been considered. Since then the under-staffed force has worked to close those gaps, while still continuing its other missions. This fall, Congress will enter its final debate over moving the agency from the Department of Transportation to the new Office of Homeland Security. Proponents of the move hope to facilitate the Coast Guard's responsibility for protecting the nation's shores. But here in the Great Lakes, some are worried that the move might weaken the Guard's ability to safeguard local resources and protect the region's thousands of recreational boaters. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer: The U.S. Coast Guard's 9th District covers the entire Great Lakes region. It's 6,700 miles of shoreline from the entrance of the St. Lawrence Seaway to the farthest reaches of Lake Superior. On September 11, the agency was ordered to stop and search all U.S. and foreign vessels on the lakes. That's when then-District Commander Admiral James Hull discovered the Coast Guard had a problem.
James Hull: And I'll tell you, on the Great Lakes when 9-11 happened - all the information's out there, but not everybody has it. There were about 55 ships on the Great Lakes and we didn't know where they were.
KS: Over the next 36 hours, the Guard did locate and board each ship. But the incident brought home the need for a centralized tracking system to pinpoint vessel movements. And it wasn't long before officials realized that problem was just the tip of the iceberg.
JH: We had people come to one of our Marine Safety Offices asking how they drive big ships, how they get licensed, where you do it. We also found out there was a ship from the Middle East in Chicago that was causing some concern.
KS: Nationwide more than 2,700 Reservists were called up to assist in the Guard's enhanced focus on maritime security. In May, Rear Admiral Ron Silva took over the 7,000 member force of the 9th District command. He says while many of the security gaps have been resolved, others have had to be prioritized.
Ron Silva: We're actually doing port security and maritime security at a level that we hadn't seen since WWII. There just aren't enough resources available within the Coast Guard or the other partner agencies, so we have to identify where we have high risk and put our resources to attend to those risks.
KS: Silva says the 9th District has been focusing much of its attention on essential infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels, and locks. He says disruption to border crossings could do serious damage to the $5 billion-a-year Great Lakes trade between the U.S. and Canada. But the Coast Guard has many other missions, ranging from keeping shipping channels open to environmental clean-up to search and rescue. In June the Bush administration acquiesced to Senate proposals to create a new Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security. The Coast Guard will be included among the more than 170,000 people from 22 federal agencies to be consolidated under the new department. And that has Congressman Dennis Kucinich worried about the Guard's ability to continue to protect Great Lakes resources.
Dennis Kucinich: Our Coast Guard has done a very good job in the 9th District. And I think they should be permitted to continue to operate in the manner that they have. The Coast Guard has a unique position and I think that the service that we've been able to get from the Coast Guard on the Great Lakes and in the Cleveland area proves the value of the Coast Guard and that we should keep the Coast Guard independent.
KS: Every summer more than a million and a half recreational boaters ply Great Lakes waters. It's part of the 9th District's job to keep those boaters safe. Michael Sciulla is with BOAT U.S. He represents 550,000 recreational boaters across the country.
Michael Sciulla: I think moving the Coast Guard over will probably end up doing well for the Coast Guard itself. There'll be more money flowing into the Coast Guard than it ever had under the old Department of transportation, where the Coast Guard literally had to fight for budget. But there are a number of Coast Guard programs that involve safety and education, things like that that really don't belong in a counter-terrorism agency.
KS: But Admiral Silva says he's confident the 9th District will be able to retain all of its missions without sacrificing either safety or security.
RS: We're seeking what we call in the Coast Guard our new normalcy. We're recognizing that we'll never go back to what was normal before 9-11. Maritime homeland security is not a new, but an increased piority mission. But our other missions are important as well.
KS: Silva says the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard has made it clear he, too believes in the multiple missions of the agency. Silva says he's committed to keeping it together, despite proposals to split off the Guard's non-security functions. And although Congress is still debating details of the new Homeland Security department, it's likely that all the Coast Guard's missions will move there after the vote is taken sometime this fall. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.