By TimesLedger Staff
With the nation on the brink of war, authorities have stepped up security across the city in a preemptive move against terrorism, shoring up potentially vulnerable sites in Queens like the airports and East River crossings.
Although Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg both insisted Tuesday that no specific threats had been made against the state or city, Bloomberg said he has begun implementing Operation Atlas, which he described as “the most comprehensive terrorism prevention operation our city has ever conducted.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001 the city has remained at the second-highest level of terrorism alert, known as “orange” or “high” under the national security system. But President Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein Monday night was immediately followed by a nationwide upgrade of one level from “yellow” to “orange.”
“We are tightening the protective net around New York City,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “We are increasing all vigilance around entrance points to New York City and putting mass transit and other potential targets under greater scrutiny.”
The facilities receiving the greatest scrutiny in Queens are LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, where security has remained tight for the past year and a half.
“Since Sept. 11 the Port Authority has never really stepped back in the level of alert and security status,” said Tony Ciavolella, a spokesman for Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs both airports in Queens. “We have remained at the highest level of alert since then.”
But at the federal orange alert level security is increased at the airports, most visibly prohibiting public parking within 300 feet of airport terminals. Although the rule was relaxed in December under the yellow threat alert, giving terminal managers discretion over parking, the rule was reinstated in February under the federal orange alert and is still in effect.
The rule’s enforcement equates to the loss of 900 parking spaces at LaGuardia — specifically affecting the US Airways and Central Terminals — while Kennedy Airport loses 400 to 500 spots.
Both airports have been fully staffed with federal baggage screeners since Dec. 31, while all checked baggage is being screened for bombs.
Although MTA Bridges and Tunnels spokesman Frank Pascual declined to comment on security matters, a source said certain precautions along East River crossings like the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges have remained in place because the city never came down from the orange level.
Measures around the bridges include hourly patrols, guards stationed at the concrete anchorages in the ground and truck checkpoints, the source said. A truck may also be stationed at either side to allow rapid bridge closure by pulling it across the lanes of traffic.
With Queens bounded on three sides by water, the U.S. Coast Guard is promising constant surveillance.
“Suffice to say, we do have people on watch 24/7,” said Dave French, a Coast Guard spokesman.
Although some public officials in Queens have expressed concern that the borough’s waterfront power plants may be vulnerable to terrorism, French said he could not comment whether those facilities have been subjected to greater scrutiny. “We do have areas in mind that would get increased awareness and patrols,” he said.
Bloomberg said highly visible security efforts — including checkpoints at bridges and increased patrols of subways, waterways and tourist sites — would be complemented by tactics that fall below the radar screen, like placing restrictions on air space and testing water and air for a potential chemical or biological attack.
In another step to tighten security, borough police commanders have been instructed to prepare individual plans to operate autonomously in the event the city’s police headquarters is disabled.
“Borough commanders will be responsible for all police resources in their geographic areas,” Kelly said.
Borough President Helen Marshall’s spokesman Dan Andrews said she has been working with the Police Department and the city Department of Citywide Administrative Services to add security at Borough Hall in Kew Gardens.
He said in addition to the entrance guards and metal detectors that screen incoming visitors, the borough president has met with police during the last few months to organize safety forums and disseminate security information to local journalists and civic leaders.
“We’re trying to make certain we take appropriate measures here,” he said. “The point is not to raise fear but discuss ‘what if’ scenarios and prepare for the future.”
Andrews said he believes most public buildings in the borough have increased security because of the threat of war.
The Fire Department has updated its operating procedures and personnel training “to deal with disasters or emergencies that may be caused by biochemical weapons and things like that,” spokesman David Billig said.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.