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Last year Patout grew increasingly indignant over the restrictions at the docks, until finally he couldn't tolerate them anymore and organized a meeting to incite change. For two hours, terminal operators, shipping agents, vendors, and Coast Guard and immigration officials hammered out ways to balance security with the interests of merchants and mariners. The meeting prompted important concessions. "It kind of brought to a head everybody discussing the same topic," Patout said, "and I think the continuation by the Coast Guard in their monthly meeting on port security has led to a lot of changes."
But policies at docks like Kinder Morgan scarcely budged. "Kinder Morgan is really one of the bad guys here," he said. "It's pure harassment. There is no reason to treat [mariners] this way."
Written statements supplied by Kinder Morgan failed to address specific questions posed by the Houston Press about the rationale for the dock's policies.
"The Pasadena/Galena Park complex is part of the nation's energy infrastructure, so we take security very seriously," a statement said. "Immediately following 9/11, Kinder Morgan implemented the security procedures that are currently in place, which are designed to protect the facility, our employees and the public."
Yet how well the existing security measures work remains an open question. The familiar two-by-four at Kinder Morgan's front gate would scarcely slow a determined Honda Civic. Chain-link fences surrounding the property could be clipped in a matter of minutes with wire cutters. And a terrorist with a slingshot could stand in the middle of Clinton Drive and lob grenades at dozens of massive canisters filled with gas products.
Kaser said security at the docks is "not perfect," but defended Kinder Morgan. "While you may be seeing a two-by-four there," he said, "what you are not seeing is a closed-circuit TV or other measures that may be in place." The docks submitted new security plans to the Coast Guard in December, and he said they should address remaining security holes.
If the new plans are to bring security up to snuff, they may have a long way to go. A nationwide investigation conducted by the news program 60 Minutes recently found security at chemical facilities in Houston and other major cities woefully inadequate. "[I]n the center of Houston, where a terrorist attack might affect three million people, it looked like an intruder could simply walk right in," the report said.
A bill proposed six weeks after 9/11 by Senator Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) would have put the federal government in charge of chemical plant security. The bill would have required the companies to stockpile fewer chemicals on-site and employ safer technologies, but it was defeated by lobbying from the $450 billion chemical industry.
Many merchants at the port said no amount of security will stymie a determined saboteur.
"If I were a terrorist, I don't think that would be that difficult a job," said Cobb of World Ship Supply. "I'd get my wetsuit and my little underwater propelled surfboard or whatever, and I don't know how to get dynamite -- but they do -- and I'd go blow something up. Don't get me wrong: That's not my profession. But it just doesn't seem like it would be that hard to do something terrible like that."
Patout founded the Seafarers' Center in 1968 to provide sailors a refuge from the streets. Mariners were often beaten and robbed because they had nowhere to go and could never stay in port long enough to file charges and get to court. The center offered them a safe drinking hole, a chapel and even basketball courts and a swimming pool. More than 100 seamen once walked from the docks to the complex every night.
These days fear of crime at the port has faded; the greatest threats to seafarers are legal, and the criminals have been replaced with security guards and immigration agents. The center cut back on some services, such as sermons aboard ships, and substituted shuttles to fill its de facto role as the port's taxi service. But the ultimate antidote to the woes of the average sailor remains much the same: a friendly handshake and an update from God.
Last month, Father Stewart climbed the metal stairs welded into the side of the petroleum tanker Bow Power and crossed a catwalk over orange tubes resembling a drunken pipe organ. He greeted the chief mate in the navigation room, where a poster in Greek showed a seaman at the wheel of a ship, with Jesus behind him, His hand on his shoulder, guiding him into the distance.
A young mariner entered the cabin in an oily jumpsuit and asked Stewart if he had brought any phone cards. Stewart said he hadn't bothered to carry them because the dock had removed the phones. Crestfallen, the worker skulked out the door.
But as Stewart prepared to disembark, the young man lingered by the gangway. Stewart had often seen it before: Home was months and thousands of cramped miles away. Placing a hand on the sailor's shoulder, he recited a psalm: " May you experience the Lord's love even when separated from Him and all you know "
Then he descended to the dock and climbed into his pickup. A mile past the guardhouse he met the interstate and joined a sea of cars. Here too, white canisters of chemicals line the roadway, and lonely strangers sail past them, crossing their fingers and mumbling psalms.