TAMPA — Obscured by all the concrete, steel and security that will ring downtown during the Republican National Convention will be a fully operational Port of Tampa.
Commercial vessels and cruise ships will still come and go from one of Florida's largest ports. Passengers and cargo will load and unload. Trucks will drive in and out.
"What we're trying to do is keep it business as usual as much as possible," said Mark Dubina, the port's security director.
But that doesn't mean it'll be easy. On land and water, security will be tightened at the port when the convention is held Aug. 27-30 at the nearby Tampa Bay Times Forum.
That close proximity will result in closed-off streets and waterways and extra security everywhere. Port businesses have been warned about possible delays accessing the port, and anyone taking a cruise out of Tampa that week also should be prepared.
Numerous stakeholders are responsible for guarding the port: tenants, the port's own security force and local and federal law enforcement. They've spent a year coordinating security for the RNC. But there was only so much they would share with the Tampa Bay Times.
"You want to tell people, but the minute you tell people everything, you give away the game plan," Dubina said. "We're taking a number of precautions that would be counterproductive to discuss in public."
Here is who is responsible for what:
• The Port of Tampa's own security force guards all the land facilities and controls all the gates. Anyone driving into those facilities must have an ID badge issued by the port or a visitor's pass secured in advance by a port tenant. Specific areas require specific badges.
Port officials said they're not yet aware of any social events scheduled to take place at the port or on boats that will be docked there. But they do expect an increase in visitors and every one of them will need some kind of port credential.
Sensitive materials like petroleum and other chemicals are also stored at the port. There are several levels of security guarding those materials, starting with the port tenants themselves. All of them must have a Coast Guard-approved security plan.
"There's a lot of hazardous but important materials to the community stored here," Dubina said. "But they're protected by layers of security: the Port Authority, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the port operator."
• The Coast Guard decides which ships can and cannot enter the port. They're also responsible for screening all entering vessels. Shipping companies must give advance notice of an approaching vessel so the Coast Guard can research what country it's registered in, where it's coming from, what it's carrying and who's manning it.
The Coast Guard already knows which ships will enter the port during the convention and has asked certain companies to rearrange deliveries of sensitive cargos like fuel around the Aug. 27-30 RNC window.
The Coast Guard usually inspects ships when they dock, but depending on a risk assessment, it can meet ships before they enter the waters of Tampa Bay. If the assessment warrants it, Coast Guard security teams and vessels will board and escort ships into port.
• U.S. Customs and Border Protection is responsible for inspecting cargo containers, which have already been inspected by U.S. agents at the port of origin. The agency can also check for radiological or biological threats but wouldn't comment further on that.
"We use a variety of tools and we're looking for a laundry list of things," said customs spokesman Chuck Pritchard. "We do have the ability to check for those kinds of hazards."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection also screens and searches cruise ship passengers as they enter the port. But for those passengers the real problem may be boarding their ships.
Anyone dropping someone off for a cruise or picking them up should give themselves plenty of time. The city has advised cruise ship patrons to avoid downtown and use Interstate 4, getting off at Exit 1 in Ybor City. Sheriff's deputies will handle traffic outside the cruise ship terminals, and port officials hope that will smooth things out.
• Federal, state and local law enforcement will team up to guard the waterways around the Tampa Bay Times Forum, which will be severely restricted during the convention. Expect to see a lot of heavily armed officers and boats floating around downtown. No vessels whatsoever will be allowed in the Garrison Channel outside the Times Forum.
While commercial ships will still be able to enter the Sparkman Channel, Ybor Turning Basin and Ybor Channel, those waterways will be closed off to civilian boats (which rarely venture that way anyway). Harbour Island residents who keep their boats moored there have been warned about the restricted waterways surrounding them.
Seddon Channel will be closed to all boat traffic while the convention is in session Aug. 27-30. It'll be open to boat traffic otherwise, but all vessels passing through will be boarded and inspected on both sides of the channel. No weapons will be allowed through the channel, and boaters should be prepared for some serious delays.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.