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It Can Happen Here 

Last week, the Bush Administration issued a thinly veiled reminder to Iraq that the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States or its allies may result in American retaliatory strikes with nuclear weapons. That is the international outlook. Meanwhile, an optimistic vision for our local tourism-dependent economy was issued last week by Stephen Perry, the new president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau and Gov. Mike Foster's former chief of staff.

"[T]he future, we believe, is brighter than ever," Perry told the Press Club of New Orleans last Monday during a summary of his first 100 days in the CVB job. "The stars have all aligned in the right way."

Perry's post-9/11 outlook is rooted in his belief that the sometime churlish sectors of the tourism and hospitality industry as well as state and local governments are primed to unite for "an economically and culturally vibrant city."

Perry is unshaken by the threat of more terrorist attacks. "We have almost a great advantage here because we are in the south-central United States. ... And that is an advantage for public safety," Perry said. "Right now is probably the safest time to travel that we have ever had." Furthermore, he says, the local public safety community has prepared a number of terrorism response plans that will help protect visitors at individual hotels.

"Frankly, I think we are going to be in a better posture than ever, primarily because we have run this drill with some of the major events like the Super Bowl," Perry said, referring to joint anti-terrorism preparations at the Superdome earlier this year, led by the U.S. Secret Service. "We are actually way ahead of the curve."

As the state prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, we share Perry's optimism for the tourism industry. We also applaud his efforts to lead a better-coordinated marketing and "branding" effort among the various sectors of the hospitality industry. But we take a more cautious view of the potential dangers posed by terrorists. Our cover story last week on port security ("Preparing for al Qaeda," Dec. 11) suggests that much work must be done to protect our city better from the threat of a major attack. We also fear that our geographical advantage may contribute to a dangerous sense of complacency -- a belief that it can't happen here.

It can happen here, and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten knows it. Letten would assume control of a 13-parish federalized communications network in the event of a terrorist attack. "Southeast Louisiana is a very target-rich environment that requires an enormous amount of vigilance to keep free of potential terrorists," he says. Potential targets include some 6,000 ships and hundreds of barges that pass through the Port of New Orleans each year, the 100-mile petrochemical corridor, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the oil and gas industry, and the nuclear power plant at Taft.

All of those sites are of "strategic, military and economic value to the United States," says Letten, who also serves as a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve intelligence division. "Here in New Orleans, homeland security and port security are indivisible."

The resurgent cruise ship industry berthed downtown near the Riverwalk shopping mall brings, along with jobs, "the very spectacular threat" of a terrorist attack, says the head of the local FBI office. A recent congressional report warns of the "low-probability but high-consequence" of a nuclear attack. If terrorists smuggled and detonated a Hiroshima-sized bomb in a United States port, the blast would destroy buildings within a two-mile radius, set fires, and spread radioactive fallout, killing "thousands of people," the report states.

How prepared are we? Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are working together like never before to protect us from terrorism, but their cooperation is not enough. The Bush administration has delayed at least until January $1.5 billion in anti-terrorism assistance to local police departments and emergency management agencies, according to The New York Times. This means that Harbor Police Chief Robert Hecker might have to wait for the $46 million in needs he has identified for a "satisfactorily secured port."

We were also chagrined to learn that top officials in the local offices of the FBI and Coast Guard -- the two biggest players in port security -- were unaware of enemy surprise attacks on merchant shipping off the Louisiana coast during World War II. As retired U.S. Sen. Gary Hart recently warned: "This country isn't going to be secure until we reorganize it that way we did after the end of World War II to prepare to defend ourselves in the new age."

Finally, although re-tooling law enforcement is necessary, the public also needs to hear more about what we as individuals and families can do to protect ourselves. The first step in minimizing new dangers is to recognize them. It can happen here, and it's up to all of us to prepare as much as possible.

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