Monthly Archives: August 2006

Katrina Blowback Part II


Hurricanes have something called storm surge.  Anything moving that is fifty miles across will have a wake in front of it.  Add wind spinning at more than 150 miles per hour, a whole whack of rain and a storm surge is something even senior legislators can comprehend.

The levee system in New Orleans and the Gulf was designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to handle the anticipated storm surge and power of a Category III hurricane.  Historically, that was the worst that rolled through the area.  The anticipated storm surge was guesstimated to be fourteen feet above sea level.  Consequently, everything was designed for that kind of event. 

There is common sense in those numbers.  As an example, the World Trade Centre towers, designed in the late 60’s, were engineered to take a one time hit from the biggest aircraft of the day, the 707.  Fast forward almost forty years and things are different.  The same holds true with the levee preparations in the Gulf.  The worst experienced was a Category III, therefore engineer and build for that what you know might happen.

There are some folks who are determined to blame the Corps for the levee failures and the general collapse of the whole system of flood protection.  I’m not going to buy that loaf of blame:  The Army Corps of Engineers is funded by the Feds and have suffered all kinds of cutbacks from various governments over the years.  Muddy, messy and hidden from view, infrastructure stuff is not glamorous, vote-garnering super-deluxe projects for the Congress, Senate or White House.  It gets ignored and gets its’ budget cut to ribbons, usually to fund some more visible projects.

After the eyewall of Katrina hit, the storm surge came inland.  Some estimates put the storm surge at 20 feet, or more, above sea level in various areas. 

Twenty feet is, approximately, two storeys high.  Stand in your front yard and look up at the top of your single storey house.  That is around twenty feet.  Water weighs 1 kilogram per liter, or just under 7 pounds per US gallon.  Pile up twenty feet of 1 liter milk cartons.  Do the math, then repeat it hundreds of thousands of times.  You get a number that is, um…much big and heavy, moving forward.  Not good for houses, cars, trucks, trains, oil refineries, apartment buildings, humans or flood walls.

The flood walls actually survived rather well, considering they weren’t designed for that kind of walloping.  However, some did fail, flooding the topographic bowl that describes New Orleans.  Eighty percent of the city was flooded.  Further to the east, Mississippi coastal towns saw huge floating casino barges washed into the downtown streets.  Whole villages were scrubbed away.  Seaside homes simply disappeared along with the cars, trucks, trailers, chickens, cows, pigs, sheds, barns, boats, docks and everything else associated with human habitation.

In the New Orleans Superdome, part of the roof ripped off in the wind.  There was no light, ventilation or water to flush the toilets, as there was no electricity.  There were rumours though.  The rumours ranged from the city is gone completely, completely untouched, completely flooded, partially flooded and everything in between.  The more enjoyable rumours were that looters had already carried off most of the downtown to busses were coming in the next hour to evacuate everyone to Baton Rouge.  None of these rumours were true, but nobody in the area knew it, as they didn’t have access to media beyond basic radio coverage.

The video coming out of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf told the rest of us the real story.  Things were very bad.  There was a lot of flooding.  There was a lot of damage.  This wasn’t a special strange channel that only certain people received.  This was on CNN and the three major networks.  As best I can determine, cable television has come to Washington D.C., which means someone in power, like, oh, the President of the United States, might be able to have one of his aides turn one on and let him look at it.

The day ended.  No more food.  No more water.  No busses.  No medical aid.  No electricity.  No help and no information.  Those who didn’t or couldn’t get to the Superdome or the Convention Centre were confronted with rapidly rising water.  They climbed into the attics or up on the roof as the floodwaters rose.  Helicopters flew as long as light was available, plucking the lucky few off rooftops.  At night, the less flooded areas saw people trying to get by.  There was some crime, as the police was crippled by the flooding too.  A couple of hundred New Orleans Police looked around and said “to hell with it”  They quit on the spot and left.  Those who were left tried to keep some kind of order.

The next day the helicopter rescues continued.  HeliNet, who provide traffic helicopters for television stations, provided wall to wall coverage and commentary for the networks.  Every few minutes a Coast Guard helicopter plucked someone off a roof. 

At the Superdome, nothing changed, except the stench and the rumours.  Over at the Convention Centre, the heat beat down on people clustered on the sidewalk.  The interior of the Convention Centre had become uninhabitable.  There was nobody in charge. 

People looted stores, at first to get water, food and clothing, having lost everything.  Then, looters changed their tactics:  Everything was open to steal.  They stole it.  Luggage, shoes by the dozens, makeup, furniture, electronics, anything and everything was looted. 

The Police, understaffed and unable to cope, tried to keep the most egregious of looting under control.  Except the local police stations were also under water, without power and no way to take in prisoners.  The authorities, including the Feds, promised everything was on the way to help.  Nothing moved.  Another night fell on another day of no food, no water, no help and no information.  The rest of us saw images of dead people floating in the floodwaters.

For two more days this was the situation.  New Orleans became a fourth world city without police, order, or food.  People were terrorized and traumatized by the heat, lack of water, lack of food and absolutely no help from anyone.  Fires started in various buildings.  Everything that could be looted, was looted.  Dead people were parked on the sidewalks, some draped to provide a modicum of dignity in an undignified death. 

Several dozen rapes were reported in the Superdome and the Convention Centre as gangs of thugs, with no hope and no morality did whatever they felt like doing.  Shootings were common.  Human waste piled up in the shelters of last resort.  More people died from exposure and dehydration.  Hospitals tried their best to get their most seriously ill patients evacuated.  The Louis Armstrong Airport had a mobile medical centre set up to handle all kinds of casualties, but nobody was being evacuated in any numbers.

In Mississippi, the survivors came out of shelters or back from high ground and started to pick up what little was left.  There wasn’t much they could do.  Everything that was needed to start the recovery was washed away or flood damaged beyond use.  Like New Orleans, the need was food, water and shelter. 

There was much promising of help, aid and assistance from the Feds.  We all remember the “Brownie, you’re doing a hell of a job” quote from Dubya on the fourth day when he jetted in for a photo op and jetted out as fast as he could.  We also remember his photo op in Mississippi when he conveniently stopped where an African American teen and her mom were pre-staged for another photo op in a sanitized area of Gulfport.  Those of us with good memory cells also remember a man yelling at Dubya during that photo op, pleading for help, until the Secret Service whisked him away.

There were a dozen stories of fleets of trucks of ice, water and food being delayed outside the flood area by FEMA people unsure of how to and where to distribute things.  The US navy sent a hospital ship and FEMA booked a cruise ship to dock in New Orleans to provide emergency housing, but it took more than six days for anything to begin to trickle into the area.

Adult humans can live without food for four or five days, without water for about three days.  At that point there are serious medical consequences to dehydration and lack of food.  The emotional consequences are permanent. 

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Katrina Blowback Part I


The media is full of “Katrina – One Year Later” stories right now, as it is the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina lambasting the Redneck Riviera.  This gives us a chance to look back at how things went down through the lens of the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-wise Monday Morning Deity.  To quote New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin “There’s plenty of blame to go around”.  We’re going to deliver a bunch.

To start, we must remember that Katrina was one of many last year, as it was a particularly busy hurricane season.  The US National Hurricane Centre did give New Orleans and Mississippi at least 48 hours warning that they were in the path of badness that was getting meaner by the minute as the storm gathered power in warm Gulf of Mexico water.  The oil companies, with hundreds of rigs in the Gulf, did the wise thing and got the hell out of Dodge when Katrina crossed Cuba.  The rigs were evacuated nearly four days before Katrina landed.  They had the sense to look at the maps and made their own predictions. 

A reasonable number of people looked at the weather map and said “time to go”.  Things looked bad, even to untrained civilians who have sat out several dozen hurricanes.  They loaded the vehicles and got going north, away from the Gulf of Mexico. 

A data point here:  From Galveston, Texas to Tallahassee, Florida, the land is mostly swamp or recovered swamp.  The high point is sea level:  A lot of the land is lower than the Gulf, protected by levees and dikes made by humans.  The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for much of the work.  The Corps is not filled with idiots, but like all humans, they make their best guess, add 20 percent for Murphy’s Law then cross their fingers hoping the science boffins got the numbers right. 

Unfortunately, the state of Louisiana, under Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans under Mayor Ray Nagin, didn’t look too closely at the TV.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, under Michael Chertoff, played in the puddles around the edge of the pond, sending a few emails and ordering up some ice.  Mississippi, under Governor Haley Barbour did start working the evacuation plan, but remember that this area of the US gets tropical storms and hurricanes every year, so complacency is an issue.

There is also the issue of the hierarchy of Federal, State and Local.  The US has a long tradition of the State Government being the one who must ask for assistance from the Feds.  The local mooks must plead their case to the State, who may or may not pass it up to the Feds.  States don’t usually have extensive resources for emergency help.  The State will rely on the National Guard.  The National Guard gets their resources from the Federal Department of Defence.  Now lay the whole Department of Homeland Paranoia/FEMA clusterfuck over top of the situation and you have a group of people spending more time pointing fingers and posturing for the cameras than actually doing anything.

Roughly 24 hours before the hurricane made landfall, Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco finished pissing on each other long enough to pull their heads out of their respective asses and ordered a mandatory evacuation.  New Orleans proper has a population just under 500,000, while the Metro area has a population around 1.4 million.  Gulfport, Mississippi houses about 72,000.  Biloxi, Mississippi, about 50,000 souls.  In round numbers, let`s call it 1.8 million folks who are in the path of badness on either side of the state lines. 

Economically, this area of the US is not in the class of an Atlanta, Boston or Charlotte:  Not everyone has the economic throw weight to pack it up and stay in a hotel in Baton Rouge or Jackson for a couple of weeks.  Not everyone has a car, or a friend with a car.  Some people didn’t want to leave, as they knew that if they did, other folks would steal everything, including things nailed down. 

Then there is the whole issue of domestic pets and how do you transport the family Rover, Fluffy and Nemo.  We’ll have to accept that a percentage of the population is not going to be leaving.  The estimates from a FEMA disaster planning exercise in 2004 were that 100,000 people would not leave the area.  This leaves, best case, 1.7 million people taking the roads out of town. 

Look at a map of the interstate highway system in the Gulf.  Interstate 10 goes from left to right.  I-59 and I-55 go up and down.  The rest are back roads and secondary roads that wind their way around a big lake in the middle, called Lake Pontchartrain.  There are not enough roads out of town, even if all four lanes are used.  Even if Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco conscripted every school bus and driver in the whole state, it wouldn’t have mattered.  The evacuation call was simply too late. 

Stores were swamped by people looking to buy food, water, batteries, diapers, gas and all the other little things that make a life.  Eventually the stores run out and the time runs out.

In large-scale natural disaster planning there comes a point where you have to just hunker in the bunker and let it blow over.  You need to have fire, police, ambulance, medical, power, water and sewer people alive after the event to pick up the pieces.  About four hours before the anticipated landfall, you climb in and bolt the doors shut.  One of those shelters of last resort was the New Orleans Superdome.  The other was the Convention Centre. 

If you invite 50,000 people to come over to your place, you have to find a way to feed them, give them water and provide a reliable way to get rid of the waste products.  Face it, 50,000 people create a lot of waste, even if everyone is neat, orderly, dignified and behaving as supportive and positive as they can.  Now, scare the hell out of 50,000 people and see how they behave.

As people entered the Superdome, the National Guard and the cops were frisking everyone, especially the males.  This takes time and made everyone feel like prisoners.  Lighters were confiscated as they posed a fire risk and naturally, those with guns were treated to handcuffs.  The Superdome did have a supply of water and military Meals Ready to Eat. 

MRE’s are acceptable foods in an emergency and are designed to be eaten cold or hot.  Each box contains a full meal in a retort, or boil-able, bag.  With the accessory pouch you also get instant coffee, whitener, chewing gum, Tabasco sauce, grape drink powder, paper matches and a wet nap.  They even include a chemical no-flame heater pack to warm up the MRE if you want.  So much for patting down the prisoners (sorry, our guests) for lighters and flammables.

The best that can be said about an MRE is that they are edible:  Tabasco is mandatory and wisely included.  MRE’s do have a five-year shelf life and in an emergency they are the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to feed 50,000 people.  One shipping pallet of MRE’s will feed about 500 people, once.  50,000 people takes 100 pallets, or roughly five transport truck loads. 

Three days of MRE’s would be the area taken up by, give or take, 45 tractor trailer loads.  Fill the football field in the Superdome with pallet after pallet of MRE’s to feed the people up in the stands of the Superdome and over at the convention centre for three days.  Of course, this was not done.  Nobody had the foresight, leadership or sheer nerve to make it happen, despite emergency planning exercises and nearly 48 hours notice that Katrina was coming to drill the Gulf right between the eyes.

The storm hit and the first thing that went out was the electricity.  New Orleans has, because it is below sea level, a very high water table.  Several huge industrial pump stations scattered around the city pump water out of the ground and into the canals to keep the city somewhat dry.  These pumps are powered by electricity.  Electricity is used to power pumps for drinking water and sewage systems.  Those pesky electrons also power the cell phone infrastructure, toaster ovens, lights, fans and traffic signals.    

Power being out for a couple of days is part of the planning for any disaster.  Hospitals have generators to keep things going on an emergency basis.  Radio and television stations have their own standby generators.  My highrise apartment has a diesel generator that powers the fire alarm, the rescue lighting system and one elevator.  Businesses in Ontario and Quebec commonly have gas, diesel or propane powered stationary generators wired into the system.  Quite a few rural houses do too.  We learned the “Electricity = Good” lesson in a ferocious ice storm in January of 1998.

Without electricity to run the groundwater pumps, New Orleans started to flood from the torrential rain in Hurricane Katrina:  Flooding, but copeable flooding.  A foot or two in the lowest areas.  It was expected, planned for and one of those things that happens.

Hospitals went over to standby power.  Radio and television stations swapped over too, covering the emergency as best they could.  The national media were live and on the scene.  It played out on our televisions for us and we watched.

More to come.

John Karr Crash


Under the heading of there are enough weird people cluttering up the planet, John Mark Karr, the self-confessed killer of JonBenet Ramsay has been found out.  His DNA did not match the DNA that was found on JonBenet.  Just now, the Denver Police have said that they will not purse charges against John Mark Karr and have closed their warrant.

What this also means is John Mark Karr is much stranger than we first feared.  Child sex abusers are one level of strange.  People who confess to doing it, then having evidence show they didn’t, is an entirely different level of strange that I am sure a professional Brain Care Specialist can figure out.  I can’t. 

There are some observations however.  Karr looks a lot like a 2006 version of Lee Harvey Oswald:  He has the same scrawny, high forehead look of a hunted man.  There is something about the eyes that say that whoever is home, is not well.  His actions show that, true enough, but there is an unidentifiable vacantness to his stare, as if there are serious demons wrestling back in the brain but the eyes are hooked up only to keep him from bumping into furniture. 

The armchair media psychiatrists will come up with all kinds of reasons why John Mark Karr confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsay, ranging from attention grabbing, to Stockholm Syndrome to wanting a free flight back to the States.  The outstanding question, however, is who did kill JonBenet Ramsey?

There are a lot of strange people out there.  John Mark Carr is one of them.

Ramsey Arrest


It has been nearly ten years since JonBenet Ramsey, the six year-old beauty queen child was killed.  For months after the killing, the media played the deeply discomforting and disturbing beauty pageant videos of JonBenet dolled up as a child of six-going-on-twenty-five-years old.  There were many suggestions that the parents killed their daughter, or that some unknown weirdos killed her.  The theories ranged from deviant pedophiles to religious nutbars being responsible. 

We now know that John Mark Karr has confessed to accidentally killing JonBenet Ramsey as part of a kidnapping and sex plot.  He was arrested in Bangkok and is going to be extradited to the US for the formal side of charges and a trial.  There was evidence of sexual behaviors at the crime scene that eventually led to Karr being indicted.  There was other stuff too.

The company I work for does a lot of work on child sex crimes, tracking and gathering evidence on online predators to help the police track down these people.  Some employees who work with the BeWebAware unit occasionally see material and behaviors that will make you vomit.  The officer from the Toronto Police who started the BeWebAware program, resigned a few months ago, after a dozen years on the job.  He was having nightmares in the daytime from the material he had seen.

There are certain things that should not be done in this world.  My attitude has always been that what floats your boat is not my business as long as the parties involved can actively consent and are of the age of majority.  The rest of it might be painful, unsanitary, medically dangerous, or personally unappealing, but still not my business, as long as you act with some discretion, in private.  This behavior can range from putting jalapeno peppers on a good pizza (merely inappropriate) to watching videos of nude wrestling grandmothers cavorting in food (very odd), I don’t have an opinion.  Touching, eroticizing or sexualizing those under the age of majority is Wrong. 

The JonBenet Ramsey investigation?  If he’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, I can’t imagine a punishment that would be more appropriate, than putting John Mark Karr in the general prison population for the rest of his life.  I have the same opinion regarding Clifford Olson and Paul Bernardo, to name two of Canada’s most heinous sex criminals.  Put them in general prison population and treat them as you would any other bank robber, meth dealer, killer or biker thug:  Feed them, give them medical care, training, education and try to rehabilitate them enough to rejoin society after paying their penalty.

If John Mark Karr goes skydiving without a parachute from the third floor, then so be it.  It shows the penal system has failed, but I can live with that personal and societal guilt. 

What the arrest of John Mark Karr does not do, is to censure those who think a beauty pageant where children are dressed up as sex goddesses is appropriate by any definition.  I have no answer how to fix that.

France to lead Peacekeepers in Lebanon


The UN has announced that France will be leading the UN peacekeeping force that will sit in between the Hezbollah crazies and the Israeli Army crazies along the Lebanese border as brokered by the UN ceasefire deal.  Of course, France wants everyone else in the world to pony up some troops to help out. 

The force is supposed to be 15,000 soldiers, but today France has 2,000 pairs of boots on the sand from the current UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon) crew:  These are the folks the Israeli Army likes to shoot at, when they’re not shooting at Hezbollah.  France is going to be the command and provide an additional 3,500 soldiers.  When asked if Canada wanted to add some more soldiers to the UN Lebanon job, our Chief of Defence Staff said that Canada “…no longer had personnel with enough Aeroplan Airmiles to get to Beirut. Or gear, or guns, or uniforms.  Thanks for asking, but we’d prefer to be shot at in Afghanistan as the hashish is better there.”

France running a peacekeeping force in Lebanon is going to be fascinating as long as the international community can keep from laughing out loud and spitting their coffee across the table.  France has a long tradition as a merchant of missiles, guns, aircraft, bullets and bombs to Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.  Italy, also an international arms dealer of significant repute, has pledged up to 3,000 troops to help out.  To put a fine point on it, imagine having your secret stash of very old, very expensive, very tasty, single-malt Scotch, guarded by a full-time professional alcoholic who just happens to have a hankering for whisky and a parched throat.

There is a long tradition of tiny little countries being involved in UN peacekeeping and the line is forming over near that palm tree.  Indonesia and “several other countries” are interested in participating.  The “several other” probably includes Chad, Malaysia, Liberia, Yemen, Tuvalu, Kenya and Uganda.  The UN pays the participating government for each soldier, occasionally provides food that might be edible and blue helmets for the uniforms, but not much more.  Most of the tiny countries don’t and can’t send transport for their troops:  They have to thumb rides off the UN or whoever is running the show.  The UN has a fleet of antiquated trucks and lightly armored vehicles that the smaller countries might be able to borrow, assuming the soldiers have the ability to drive, or fix or fuel the vehicles, which usually is also impossible. 

In Somalia, one country who had ‘peacekeepers’ helping out, didn’t want to take their armored military vehicles out of the fortifications to rescue some American soldiers, for fear the vehicles would be shot at by the Somali militias.  In the early 90’s, another country’s peacekeeping contribution all but starved to death when Rwanda imploded because their country couldn’t afford to send them food, fuel or even airlift them out of Rwanda.  They camped out in the Canadian compound and sat around all day waiting for meals and hiding from the bad guys with guns.

I’m not suggesting the UN peacekeeping contributions of the smaller countries are useless, but it comes close to it.  France had better be willing to train, house, feed, arm, fuel, transport, support and when needed, provide medical care for these little groups.  With any luck the arms dealers who will be parachuted in by France, will have some spare time to train the other participants in how to operate a proper arms sales organization in a war zone. 

Security Consequences II


In the first part, we talked about the unintended consequences of the TSA cracking down on flights from Europe.  The second part covers the things we’ve overlooked and will probably bite us sooner rather than later.

Cargo is the lifeblood of the world economy.  Be it cargo on ships, trains, trucks or aircraft, cargo makes the money go from A to B and back again carrying, well, everything.  Except for the lettuce you pick locally, it was cargo at one time or another. 

Air cargo is a huge industry, flying everything except bulk commodities like coal or potash, anywhere in the world.  Passenger airlines love cargo as it is found money.  The aircraft is going there with people in it, so why not make some money off the storage space under the floor, as long as the gas is paid for by the passengers upstairs.  Cargo doesn’t need much in the way of food, beverages or even oxygen.  Cargo doesn’t get a safety briefing or needs to be reminded to put on its seatbelts for landing.  The ramp rats are at the destination to unload the bags, so keeping them busy for another twenty minutes to unload a bunch of cargo is good business.

Where things fall over with cargo, specifically air cargo, is the security of the shipment.  To quote the TSA “All air cargo is screened”.  Don’t press for a definition of the word ‘screened’, as you might not sleep tonight.  Here is what ‘screened’ means:  Air cargo is not x-rayed or imaged.  Individual boxes in a shipment are not opened.  Bomb-sniffing dogs do not run over the cargo before it is loaded on the plane.  There is no hand inspection of the components in a shipment.  The sole screening of air cargo consists of the cargo company or middleman knowing the originating shipper, called a ‘known shipper’ in the Known Shipper program.  Nobody from the TSA or CATSA goes to the originating warehouse to check what is being put in the boxes.  It is all up to the shipping company to vet the originating shipper. 

The shipper promises the airline that the boxes contain what they say they contain on the paperwork.  The airline looks at the bill of lading and says “It ain’t labeled nuclear waste or live snakes, so let it fly.”  Often the shipment comes in, prepackaged for a unit-load container, those big aluminum igloo shaped things, and gets put in the unit load along with other shipments.  Truly smart shippers have their own igloos that they preload at their own shipping dock away from the airport.  All they do is roll off the unit load container and put it on a trolley to drag out to the plane.  As long as the weight and dimensions match what was planned for, the air cargo people don’t get involved. 

Technically, TSA and CATSA physically inspect a percentage of the air cargo shipments.  That specific percentage is not publicly available, as it is a question of ‘security’.  I’ve talked with enough ramp rats over the years to know that the TSA, CATSA and the police have little or no presence on the ramp or the loading areas, unless a load of diamonds or cash is being transferred via air cargo.  Only then will the uniforms make their faces visible. 

On arrival at the destination airport, the unit-loads are pulled off the aircraft and trolleyed to the loading dock for breakdown, if the unit load contains several shipments, or cross-dock, if the destination receiver is going to pick up the unit load in their own truck.  Roll it off, then roll it on.

The real number of inspected shipments traveling by air cargo, according to several sources including CNN, is around 5%.  This means that 95% of shipments are not physically inspected in any way shape or form.  Unless the cargo is actively ticking and smoke coming out of the boxes, there is no way to know if that unit-load is full of computer parts or explosives.

Shipping a load of badness is much easier that attempting to convince a young man to smuggle things on board an aircraft and blowing himself up in a sacred explosion.  If the cement-heads need martyrs, then put the badness in a piece of cargo and phone it from the airphone in the aircraft, setting off the detonator:  The end result is still aluminum rain and the usual terror.

Truck and sea shipping is just as porous.  Sea containers, or cans, to use the industry term, can easily hold a couple of cars worth of badness.  Again, the only screening the TSA and Canada Customs does is to look for suspicious shippers and contents.  Some freight is x-rayed, but more than 90% is merely screened, with the shipping companies doing the vetting.  Again the vetting consists of asking “Do we know these guys?” from the Known Shipper program. 

As long as the paperwork for the truckload or can doesn’t say “Heroin from Afghanistan” or “Fuck You Infidel Zionist Bastards” the shipment goes into the system.  A small piece of explosive trivia.  The Timmy McVeigh fertilizer bomb that took out the Murragh Federal Building in Oklahoma City weighed about a ton and a half and fit nicely into a Ryder truck.  A full-sized sea container will hold up to 40 tons.  You can see them stacked double on rail cars leaving ports, traveling across country on high-speed freight trains.  For that matter, you see cans on truck trailers being delivered to warehouses all over the place.

Getting on the Known Shipper program is about as easy as buying lottery tickets.  The company I used to work for was on the TSA Known Shipper Program because we actively sought to get on the program through our shipping company.  We sent big foam-lined cases full of laptop computers all over the continent as part of doing the Hands-On Labs in hundreds of cities.  Each case was a bit smaller than the size of an adult coffin and weighed 150 pounds each.  Most shipments had four cases.  Those cases had flight stickers from all the airlines in North America with the exception of Aloha Airlines.  The cases were always locked by us and sealed, so we would know if the contents had been tampered with, as each case held about $30,000 worth of laptop computers.  The cases were never opened.

The reason the TSA, CATSA and the rest are fixated on airline passengers is simple enough.  The original 9/11 attacks were passenger aircraft taken over by terrorists inside the aircraft, but that horse has already left the barn.  The public face of TSA and Homeland Paranoia is focused on being seen to be doing something with their hundreds of millions of dollars of budget.  Hassling air passengers is an obvious ‘doing something’.  Spending time away from the public, checking more than 5% of the cargo shipments coming into and moving around North America is not an obvious ‘doing something’ as nobody can see it being done. 

We have a couple of huge legally empowered agencies purportedly protecting us from terrorist threats who are more concerned with x-raying Grandma Hazel’s aluminum walker than doing the unglamorous work of opening boxes in warehouses and running bomb dogs over the cargo igloos at the airport.  The TSA will argue that they are trying to find a “technological solution” to examine all the shipments without causing undue delays in the system. 

We don’t need a technological solution, we need an agency with the commitment to say “Your shipment is going to be taken apart and everything checked by hand because we bloody well want to know what is in the boxes”.  Then, have the manpower to do it.  It doesn’t take high technology to check the contents of a box against the list on the bill of lading.  Reseal the box with TSA tape that says “Opened and verified by TSA”  Check more than 50% of the shipments moving around and you have actually done something useful.   

If the TSA and Homeland Paranoia were truly committed, then any complaints from the shippers would be answered with a simple “Screw off and shut up” Oh, wait a moment.  Interrupting the making of money and business in the interests of actual, real, Homeland Security is simply not acceptable is it?  Sorry, I just got the memo.  Hassling people in public is good.  Interfering with business is bad.

If the cement-heads want to create some real terror in North America, the easiest route is not smuggling small quantities of binary explosive onboard aircraft in Gatorade and hair gel bottles.  The easiest and forgive me for the pun, best bang for the buck, is to make every truck, rail car and delivery van an object of fear and terror.  Cargo in transit is everywhere.  You can build bombs big enough to take out bridges and buildings across the continent.  Plus you don’t have to mess with the ideological and security problems of training martyrs. 

All it takes is a warehouse.  TSA, CATSA and the Department of Homeland Paranoia have left you a 95% open door.

Security Consequences Part I


Over two postings I’m going to show you some of the unintended consequences of the most recent security clampdown at Heathrow.  It might change your travel plans, but that isn’t my aim.  What I want to explain is how one smallish change can have very large consequences.  The first one we’re going to tackle is the airline security mess crossing the Atlantic.  Some of this is background data you need to appreciate the linkages, so bear with me. 

A couple of decades ago, the only aircraft flying the trans-Atlantic routes were three and four-engine jet/turbofan aircraft.  The 747, 707, DC-8, L1011 and DC-10 tri-jets were the most common.  The reason more than two engines were used was for safety and redundancy.  If one engine fails in flight the remaining two or three engines can get the aircraft full of passengers to land and the ground safely.  Airlines didn’t like it, as three or four engines are expensive to keep, maintain and run, as they gobble gas the whole way, but the FAA in the US and the CAA in the UK said three engines was the minimum for safety. 

After a few years the aircraft and engine manufacturers got their ducks in a row regarding reliability and asked the various legal bodies to approve something called ETOPS, which means Extended Twin OPerationS over water.  In the early days ETOPS was also called Engines Turning Or Passengers Swimming, but that is an aside.  The reliability was such that a two-engine aircraft, well-maintained could safely fly from Logan or JFK to London with a full load of passengers.  The 757 was one of the first ETOPS-certified twin engine passenger jets on the trans-Atlantic route.  Following on was the 767, 777, A330 and even the A320 in certain configurations.  Two engines were just as safe as three or four and, glory be, much cheaper to run than a 747 per passenger mile.  ETOPS meant profitable to the airlines and safe to the regulatory bodies as long as the maintenance was done properly.  Many carriers still run the 747 on trans-Atlantic as they pack in more bodies, or move more cargo as part of the load to offset the cost of four engines, but twin jets are the norm.  Now notice the caveat that is in that paragraph:  “as long as the maintenance was done properly.”  This becomes important later.

Since 9/11 the TSA and the Department of Homeland Paranoia have required all flights coming to the US to send their passenger manifests electronically to allow the TSA to check for bad guys.  This is sensible and the airlines figured it was reasonable enough to let the US know who was coming, so they could intercept them at Customs at JFK, O’Hare or wherever.  However, the TSA now demands more than 30 pieces of data about each passenger, including credit card data and insists on as much personal information as they can get their hands on.  This is a bit troubling, but I’m willing to let some of it slide to keep the skies reasonably safe.  That kind of data collection didn’t spot Richard Reid the shoe bomber, but there are always a few that will slip through even the finest nets.  The airlines used to send the data after the flight had closed and was either off the ground or just taxiing out at Heathrow.

As of last week, the TSA will not allow the flight to leave until they are satisfied that nobody on the flight is even the slightest bit suspicious.  The airline cannot dispatch the US-bound flight without approval of the TSA.  The data must be sent after the doors are closed and locked, but before the flight leaves the ground.  What this means, in short form, is the airplane full of passengers is left to sit for the amount of time it takes for the TSA in Washington to run the passenger and crew data through their Magic 8-Ball Threat Assessment program.  This can, according to the British Airport Authority (who runs Heathrow) anywhere from one to three hours.  Heathrow, being a profit driven airport, cannot have a revenue generating gate tied up with an aircraft parked there, waiting for an omen from above.  The aircraft gets towed off to a parking stand.  The passengers are in takeoff mode, seat backs upright, table trays stowed, seatbelts fastened, no water, no music, no laptops, no cellphones, no service, no lavatories and no distractions whatsoever for an indeterminate period of time. 

The aircraft is sitting idle and not generating revenue.  At the same time, the aircraft has the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) running to provide lights, instruments, radios and one tiny little fan circulating air in the cabin for 200 stressed, thirsty passengers.  A six-hour flight has now become a nine-hour ordeal.  Meanwhile the connecting flights are leaving on schedule in the US.  The air carrier has to reroute the delayed passengers from London, which costs the airline money.  The flight and cabin crew have a mandated maximum number of duty hours and the airline is paying for them to sit on their hands and twiddle their thumbs. 

Will this cause the air carrier to lose a lot of business?  You bet it will.  Passengers enduring this kind of hostility in the name of security will only do it once.  Expect the number of people flying to and from Europe to drop to very low levels regardless of the ticket price.  This will cut into airline profits in a very big way.

To complicate things even further, as of September 1st, the European Union privacy laws prevent airlines from sending the depth of data the TSA requires to a foreign government, which is what the TSA is.  There are significant fines attached to violating the EU privacy laws.  There are also significant fines associated with not complying with the TSA-mandated information gathering, as well as having your flight turned back or declared hostile by the TSA and the Department of Homeland Paranoia.

Airlines are faced with dirt-cheap fares, wildly fluctuating fuel prices and insane insurance premiums.  Having slashed all the fat and many bones out of their costs, the airlines are faced with one last expense they can manage:  Maintenance.  Remember that one key caveat I brought to your attention:  “as long as the maintenance was done properly”?  The only way the airline system and ETOPS works as safely as it does, is maintenance. 

The worldwide air safety regulation system is set up on a tombstone basis:  Tombstone meaning the rules, procedures and laws regarding aircraft do not change until a bunch of people die.  If the crash is caused by maintenance, it can take years for the investigation to finally get to the point whereby an airworthiness directive is issued to change maintenance procedures.

The TSA by mandating onerous security procedures from Europe are making it easy for air carriers to cut that last corner that risks a disaster.  More unfortunate, is that the TSA will, in all likelihood, insist on the same level of data reporting for domestic or North American flights.  As long as they wrap their demands in ‘the war on terrorism’, the public will go along with it.  Expect delays.  Then, expect deaths that have nothing to do with terrorism, but everything to do with money.