In this month’s issue of Texas Monthly, executive editor S.C. Gwynne envisions a hypothetical terrorist attack on the Houston Ship Channel and its social, political, and economic impact on the United States and, effectively, the world. Here, he discusses government-issued terror alerts, acknowledging our vulnerabilities to attacks, and being prepared for the worst.
texasmonthly.com: What made you decide to write this story now?
S.C. Gwynne: Partly it was because I just got sick of being told by our government that we were on Code Orange alert without being told why. At some point you start to wonder, “What are they talking about? What could really happen here?” Partly it was the wave of terrorist-attack simulations that have been taking place all over the state, including one earlier this year on the ship channel itself.
texasmonthly.com: What was the response when you proposed this story in the editorial meeting?
SG: The first response was a big yawn, as I recall—sort of like the national response to the Orange alerts these days. Ho hum, more terrorist stuff. But I harangued them until they gave in. I thought it was important to fully imagine what the risks might be.
texasmonthly.com: Are you concerned people will accuse you of writing a “How to commit a terrorist attack in Houston” piece?
SG: Yes, even though that is not what I am doing. What I am doing, in fact, is what local emergency planning committees all across the country, and especially in Houston, are doing, which is to acknowledge precisely what the threats are so that they can be properly addressed. Nothing in my story is classified. All of the information is available to any terrorist who wants to look at it, and that is the point. It would take you very little time, for example, to find out where the chlorine storage tanks are in the Houston area. There is simply no point in keeping this information secret if it is so readily accessible to the bad guys.
texasmonthly.com: You mention going to the Federal Courthouse in Houston to review Risk Management Plans. Can you talk more about your experience with the strict environment for reviewing public records there?
SG: When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first required that plants file Risk Management Plans that included worst-case scenarios, the government’s first instinct was to shut off all public access. But local and neighborhood groups went nuts, saying in effect that the public needs to know what sorts of risks are inherent in chemical and other plants. People want to know what’s in that storage tank that sits ten blocks away from the elementary school. So a compromise was reached. Neighborhood groups, reporters, and others are allowed see the RMPs but only under strict supervision. I think the main concern is that the actual documents are not put up on the Internet.
texasmonthly.com: This article discusses the hypothetical mass-scale chemical reactions of many of the products that are trafficked in the Houston Ship Channel. How did you research the chemistry behind these potential weapons?
SG: I spoke with experts. The information on chlorine and its effects, for example, came from a division commander with the Austin Emergency Medical Services department. Those folks really know their stuff.
texasmonthly.com: If an attack such as the one you describe were to actually occur in Houston, do you think its social, political, and economic impact would be greater than that of the September 11 attacks?
SG: That is hard to say. I think the two would be comparable in some ways, different in others. The economic impact of my fictional Houston attack would be greater because it would paralyze the nation’s ports and commerce indefinitely.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think it will ever be possible to fully secure any port, including the Houston Ship Channel, from a terrorist attack, or will this always be a fear in the U.S.?
SG: It is impossible to fully secure a port and still conduct efficient commerce. That is why the people at the Department of Homeland Security are so concerned about port attacks and why sweeping new maritime regulations went into effect this past summer. But when you look at it closely, ports are no different than most of the country. I was at my daughter’s middle school this morning. Anybody can drive in there at any time and park in front of the school, just as Timothy McVeigh parked his rented Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, in 1995. Most small towns are completely undefended. It’s just the way it is, and as long as we remain a free and open country, it probably isn’t going to change. You want to talk about damage to the national psyche: Imagine a bomb that kills most of the students at a 1,200-person elementary school. It would shatter the country.