Gloucester has sent men to the sea in ships -- whalers, schooners, dories and more -- for nearly four centuries. A seaside memorial enshrines the names of more than 5,300 mariners who never returned, lost to howling nor’easters and monstrous waves, including the doomed swordfishing crew portrayed in the film “The Perfect Storm.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s mournful poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and Rudyard Kipling’s adventure story “Captains Courageous” are set here. Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper brought their easels to paint local seascapes. T.S. Eliot came crabbing.
Now the storied seaport and art colony is hoping for a new kind of distinction -- as a high-risk terrorist target.
Gloucester’s mayor, Carolyn Kirk, is seeking some of the $832.5 million in Homeland Security funds set aside to protect America’s most vulnerable and important urban centers.
Kirk’s case relies mainly on the potential danger posed by two liquefied natural gas terminals that sit seven and 12 miles out in the Atlantic.
There is no evidence that the rugged town of 32,000, perched atop the dramatic rocks of Cape Ann, is actually in the cross hairs of terrorists. But there is a more immediate threat: Gloucester is so broke it has cut police officers, shut fire stations, laid off teachers and closed a school.
“This town is beat up, broken and hurting,” said Miles Schlichte, the deputy fire chief, as his truck bounced down potholed streets. “If Homeland Security money can help us, it shouldn’t all go to New York or Los Angeles or Boston.”
The town’s plea is a sign of how America has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. Then, the threat of fresh terrorist attacks seemed urgent. Now, the nation is climbing fitfully out of a deep recession, and states and cities are struggling. Terrorism has become a source not only of worry but also, potentially, of budgetary relief.
Strapped local and state governments must compete for $4 billion in grants to prepare for terrorism and other disasters, a bonanza that increasingly drives urban priorities.
“Every mayor, every city council, every sheriff is trying to play the homeland security card these days,” said Stephen Flynn, president of the Center for National Policy, a Washington-based think tank that studies domestic defense. “Everyone is saying our stuff is more vulnerable or more critical than the other guy.”
The problem, he said, is that nearly any community can argue it has crucial infrastructure but not the resources to deal with an endless array of potential threats, from bioterrorism to earthquakes.
“There’s no meaningful debate on the likely risk, and the pot of money is too small to protect everything,” Flynn said. “It’s the worst of both worlds.”
One of the largest grant programs is the Urban Areas Security Initiative. It will funnel $832.5 million this year to 64 “high-threat, high-density urban areas” presumed attractive to terrorist plotters.
The money is divided using a formula that weighs the likely threat to each area against the vulnerability of its infrastructure and the potential consequences of a major attack or other disaster
“We focus these grants on the cities that face the highest risk,” said Clark Stevens, a Homeland Security spokesman.
Nearly two-thirds of the money goes to the top 10 targets, including New York, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Only seven cities were deemed highest risk until recently. But Dallas/Fort Worth, Philadelphia and Boston were added in December after several years of lobbying by governors and members of Congress from the affected states.
Kirk, Gloucester’s mayor, initially hoped her town might join the second tier of 54 high-risk cities, which includes Miami and San Diego, or get a different grant.
In 2008, shortly after she was elected, Kirk wrote a letter to ask federal officials for $1 million to help her town meet what she called a “dramatic increase” in security needs.
In addition to the two offshore gas terminals, Kirk cited the Seabrook nuclear power plant 17 miles north in New Hampshire, dockside freezers that use ammonia for refrigerant, a cruise ship terminal, and bridges and rail lines.
Even whale-watching boats for tourists, Kirk wrote, are “a potential marine disaster.”
“They pretty much ignored me,” she recalled in an interview. “I was really disappointed.”
Gloucester-area residents have raised money through unorthodox schemes before. Since international waters are relatively close by, smuggling is a local tradition.
During Prohibition, ships landed barrels of whiskey and rum here. In World War II, sympathizers supposedly sold diesel to Nazi submarines offshore. In later years, trawlers ferried arms to the Irish Republican Army, while narcotics proved so lucrative that one neighborhood is still known as Heroin Heights because drug money allegedly built its homes.
Today, fishing is in free fall. The fleet that once dominated the rich Georges Bank shoals has shrunk drastically, and the famed swordfish boats have followed the great broadbills south.
Gorton’s of Gloucester, famed for frozen fish sticks and fillets, trucks its catch in from afar.
Still, hundreds of vessels ply the harbor, lobster traps are stacked high on the quays, and the doleful wail of a foghorn and the slapping of waves sound a steady pulse.
Whether that adds up to a terrorist target is less clear.
Kirk says the danger is real. The mayor wants to upgrade police and fire communications, build an emergency operations center, and train first-responders, among other goals. The town can’t afford any of that without outside help.
She met with Homeland Security officials in Washington in February, and now is pressing -- so far without success -- to get some of the $19 million that goes to top-risk Boston, 36 miles down the coast, or to tap other grants that Massachusetts gets to bolster security.
“We have a number of soft targets,” Kirk insisted.
An editorial in the Gloucester Daily Times said it was difficult to see the sleepy fishing port as “a site of strategic importance to terrorist groups,” beyond the gas stations out at sea.
James Caulkett Jr., Gloucester’s harbor master and former officer in charge of the local Coast Guard station, discounts the danger too.
“All the hype of a tanker blowing up, like a small nuclear bomb, I don’t believe any of it,” the burly, bearded seaman said. “The chance of someone blowing up one of those ships is about zero.”
Massive tankers sail into busy Boston Harbor every week or so and unload liquefied gas along a heavily guarded dock in the town of Everett.
Security precautions and media scrutiny intensified in February when a Greek-flagged tanker unloaded gas from Yemen, a Middle Eastern nation where Al Qaeda is active. The importer, Distrigas of Massachusetts, has signed a 20-year contract to bring about 30 shipments a year from Yemen, officials said.
“What’s coming from Yemen is just the cargo,” said Petty Officer Etta Smith, spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, which closely inspects each tanker. “It’s not a Yemeni crew or ship.”
If an attack or accident closes Boston Harbor, Gloucester has been designated as the overflow port. Local officials have won several small grants to enhance port security since 2007, including $278,000 to buy a new fire boat this summer.
But the town remains in a fix. Downtown streets are laced with muddy trenches as work crews replace aging sewers and water mains. Leaks were so severe last summer that residents were forced to boil their drinking water for three weeks.
Emergency repairs were done to keep fire trucks from crashing through the floor of the main fire station.
Across the street, the once-grand City Hall shut temporarily when the clock tower almost collapsed. A sign still hangs by the entrance: “Caution: Falling Objects.”
“We’re trying to keep an old city together that is coming apart at the seams,” said Schlichte, the deputy fire chief. “We see Homeland Security money pouring down all around. Somehow it never gets to us.”