East Baton Rouge Parish’s emergency management director was busy unpacking boxes at a newly built operations center when terrorists sent two airplanes hurtling with deadly aim into the World Trade Center a decade ago.
“I don’t think anybody will ever forget where they were when that happened,” said JoAnne Moreau, the agency’s longtime director. “Somebody called in about the plane, and then it got worse with the second plane. … We immediately activated.”
The events that happened more than 1,200 miles away would have a profound impact not just on Moreau and her agency, which was then moving into new offices on Harding Boulevard, but on thousands of others throughout South Louisiana.
From the region’s busy deepwater Mississippi River ports to its petrochemical plants, oil refineries and emergency response systems, life in a post-9/11 world would never be the same.
A major priority in the aftermath of the attacks was what federal authorities refer to as “hardening of the critical infrastructure” — tightening access to critical sites to make them less vulnerable to attack, Moreau said.
She said that meant such things as worker identification cards and keypad entry to sensitive areas of buildings; checkpoints and perimeter patrols; and surveillance cameras to monitor vital infrastructure such as sewage and water treatment plants.
Federal, state and local law enforcement authorities say the oil and gas pipelines that crisscross Louisiana and its large petrochemical plants and busy ports make the state a target-rich environment for terrorists.
David Welker, special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans office, which covers the entire state, noted that a huge volume of grain, raw materials and manufactured products move along the Mississippi River.
Anything that might disrupt that flow of goods could wreak havoc, he said.
“A cessation of traffic on the river would be a huge economic disaster for the country,” Welker said.
Meanwhile, he noted, Henry Hub in Sabine Parish is a critical juncture connecting interstate natural gas pipelines. It serves as the pricing point for natural gas futures contracts traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
And then there are the nation’s strategic oil reserves stored in Louisiana’s salt domes.
The FBI has focused a great deal of attention since 9/11 on trying to prevent terrorist attacks against such potential targets, Welker said, whether by foreign or homegrown extremists.
“We in the FBI moved about 3,000 bodies (nationwide) from criminal matters to counter-terrorism,” Welker said. “We had to redefine our priorities.”
Edward Flynn, vice president of health, safety and security for the Louisiana Chemical Association, said petrochemical plants and refineries have substantially tightened their security since 9/11.
“We don’t have the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building or the nation’s capitol, but in terms of causing economic upheaval, this is a target-rich environment,” Flynn said.
Most petrochemical plants were built in the years immediately after World War II and were designed to move raw materials and finished products in and out of the complexes as efficiently as possible, Flynn said.
The plants have added more gates and locks, restricted access to sensitive areas and have beefed up perimeter security with more fences, patrols, video surveillance cameras and better lighting, he said.
“It’s an industry-wide effort that takes both voluntary and regulatory approaches,” Flynn said. “Is it perfect? No. Is it bulletproof? No. But is it vastly improved? Without a doubt.”
He said the days when workers and visitors could “drive right up to the main gate of a plant and amble in” are long past.
Gone, too, are the days when people could drive into the Port of Greater Baton Rouge and stop to have lunch at the docks, said Jay Hardman, the port’s executive director.
“Specifically at this port there were some monumental changes,” Hardman said. “Prior to 9/11, anyone could drive through the entire complex.”
Now, he said, access to the port is carefully monitored and restricted. ID cards and visitor badges are required and more security cameras and personnel guard the complex.
“There’s an overall general awareness to be watchful and vigilant,” Hardman said. “You won’t wander around here or anywhere on the waterfront and not be stopped and questioned.”
One major change was the introduction of Transportation Worker Identification Credential cards for maritime workers and other employees in security-sensitive transportation sectors such as airports, railroads, chemical plants and refineries.
To obtain a TWIC card from the federal Transportation Security Administration, workers have to go through a background screening check, Hardman said.
“Even the water delivery guy here has a TWIC card,” Hardman said.
The Port of Greater Baton Rouge is further beefing up security with construction of a $3.1 million Maritime Security Operations Center that will serve as a command center for federal, state and local agencies responding to any maritime emergency.
The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Baton Rouge plays a key role in monitoring all activity along the Mississippi River between the Sunshine Bridge near Donaldsonville north to the Old River Lock in Pointe Coupee Parish.
Lt. Commander Quincy Davis, who heads the unit, said his crews regularly inspect all waterfront facilities that receive ships, and board vessels to inspect cargos and insure the vessels are following regulations and operating safely.
“Vessels are required to give us 96 hours advance notification before they come in,” he said. “We monitor who is coming into the ports, where they are going and what they are carrying.”
For most people, of course, the heightened security of the post-9/11 world has been experienced at the nation’s airports.
Travelers have become accustomed to slipping off their shoes, passing through metal detectors and having small bottles of liquid or nail clippers removed from carry-on luggage.
Baton Rouge Metro Airport Police Chief Anthony Williams said airline travel “changed in all aspects” after the 9/11 attacks.
For example, he said, it’s no longer possible to park in front of the terminal building at Baton Rouge Metro Airport and, as at other airports across the nation, only ticketed passengers are allowed past screening.
The “ticketed passengers only” restriction meant fewer people were able to enjoy a renovated airport atrium and observation area that was done shortly before the 9/11 attacks. In the past, family members could wait with a traveler in that area before planes began boarding passengers or while waiting for family and friends to arrive. Plans for expanding and renovating the terminal are expected to address the atrium access problem.
Meanwhile, some passengers are subjected to enhanced pat-down searches by TSA officers in a private screening area, outside of public view, when circumstances call for it, Williams said.
“Most people understand that this is a learning process for us in America,” Williams said. “Other parts of the world have experienced this before, but we’re still going through growing pains.”
Williams said people would probably be surprised by the things TSA agents find in carry-on bags — everything from hammers to drill bits, handcuffs and steak knives.
One of the more unusual items, he said, was a “hand grenade desk oddity” that a businessman was given at a conference. It was an old grenade that had been drilled out and was inert. Still, it had to be left behind.
Other post-9/11 security changes have impacted first responders, including East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services.
EMS spokesman Mark Olson said employees are required to cut up old uniforms before getting rid of them, and can no longer exchange patches and hats with other agencies or the public.
The change was made to decrease the chance of a terrorist using such clothing and insignias to gain access to restricted areas, Olson said.
EMS paramedics and other first responders are also equipped with nerve agent antidote kits and masks to protect them from chemical agents and hazards they might encounter.
“If we’re hurt, we can’t help you,” Olson said.
Baton Rouge Fire Chief Ed Smith said 9/11 brought firefighters’ mortality “into full view.”
He said it forced firefighters to plan for large-scale events, create better partnerships with other first responders, and improve communication with those partners.
“We’re always dealing with new situations as things progress in our world,” he said, citing anthrax, bird flu and weapons of mass destruction as examples of things firefighters might face as first responders.
The terrorist attacks enhanced and intensified the training process for firefighters, he said.
Smith, Olson and law enforcement officials say 9/11 also forged much closer working relationships among agencies.
One example is the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange — more commonly referred to as the “fusion center.”
The center, located at state police headquarters on Independence Boulevard, is where state, federal and local authorities collect, evaluate and disseminate homeland security and crime-related information, said State Police Lt. Chuck McNeal, who heads the unit.
State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson said collaborative efforts like the fusion center have made law enforcement agencies more efficient and effective.
“We were communicating and talking, but we were not all together like this,” Edmonson said.
While terrorism was the impetus for creating the fusion center, McNeal said, it has evolved into more of an overall crime fighting effort that serves the law enforcement community.
Analysts piece together information about drug dealers and violent criminals, as well as about domestic extremist groups with a history of violence.
In fact, it was a domestic act of terrorism — the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 — that led to the city-parish’s decision to relocate emergency management offices and dispatchers for police, fire and Emergency Medical Services on Harding Boulevard, Moreau said.
The city-parish did not want to find its emergency response functions crippled if the governmental building was ever a similar target for terrorists, she said.
And that’s why Moreau found herself unpacking boxes at a new emergency response center when the hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon a decade ago.
Advocate staff writer Kimberly Vetter contributed to this report.