updated 3/24/2004 3:21:25 PM ET 2004-03-24T20:21:25

Since 1936, a lone federal worker has sat in a tower along the Mississippi River, scanning the water with binoculars and radioing ship captains on whether to proceed or stop their vessels.

Not for long. The radioman will be gone by the end of the year, replaced by a new computerized system that will track and send messages to all large vessels on the lower Mississippi.

The system will be in place at all major U.S. seaports in 2005 — part of a security overhaul at the nation’s ports, where officials fear a terrorist attack could cause economic and environmental disasters.

“Seaports have vulnerabilities that are far more difficult to address than airports,” said Kim Petersen, executive director of the Maritime Security Council, adviser to the State Department on maritime anti-terrorism. “You have ports that have literally tens of thousands of miles of coastline that provide the possibility for access by criminals and terrorists.”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, every foreign vessel over 300 tons has been forced to notify the Coast Guard four days before arriving at a U.S. port. The ship must provide a cargo list, its last five ports of call, destination in the United States and name, nationality and passport or identity number of every crew member.

The FBI, Coast Guard and other agencies say they’ve transformed their seaport patrols, restrictions and safety measures. Coast Guard officers around the country board any ship — sometimes dropping from helicopters — if they learn a member of its crew has suspicious paperwork.

New Orleans will be one of the country’s first ports to institute a new system of monitoring all large commercial vessels. By January, commercial ships 65 feet or longer, except fishing boats, will be blocked from entering the port unless they’re equipped with electronic boxes that automatically transmit data about the vessels to the Coast Guard.

All large oil tankers, cruise ships and large tug and tow boats on the river’s lower 280 miles will show up as blips on computer screens in a downtown New Orleans office tower. With a mouse click, Coast Guard workers will be able to examine detailed information on each ship: where it came from, where the captain is headed and what’s being hauled.

“We’ll be able to track him from the moment he enters our coverage area for the entire time he’s in that area. We’ll be able to do a much better job,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mark V. Kasper, who oversees vessel traffic on the lower Mississippi.

By 2005, the system will be mandatory for all large commercial vessels entering the ports of New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, San Francisco and Houston. The installation will cost about $10,000 per ship.

The Coast Guard boards ships with sketchy paperwork, unusual cargo or any connection to countries deemed suspicious. Other agencies involved in security around the New Orleans port include Customs, the Louisiana National Guard and local police.

Special Agent Robert A. Burkes of the FBI’s New Orleans said his agents board a vessel about once a month, when the Coast Guard or another agency has concerns that a ship, cargo or crew member could indicate a link to terrorism.

“We end up interviewing people if anything about the ship, the shipping line, the ownership or the people on board raise any maritime agency’s suspicions,” said Burkes, who oversees anti-terrorism efforts in south Louisiana.

Huge tankers and barges aren’t the only threat: The biggest maritime terrorist act against the United States was an explosion that killed 17 U.S. sailors aboard the USS Cole in 2000. The suicide bombers used a small boat in the attack.

On the lower Mississippi, potential terror targets include the levee — which prevents flooding in New Orleans — and the massive cruise ships that can carry up to 3,000 passengers.

Experts say such an attack could just as easily occur in U.S. waters.

Al-Qaida “has an array of goals, all of which could potentially be met by an attack against a ship or a seaport in the United States,” Petersen said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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