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Homeland Security On Beaver Island

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, August 25, 2005

BEAVER ISLAND, Mich. The outside world, I'm sorry to say, keeps intruding on this pastoral paradise, where once again this summer, several of our grandchildren enjoyed the legacy left by their great-great-grandfather, Uriah Hoffman, when he built his family cabin here 91 years ago.

Last summer, as I reported at the time, it was the blighted presidential campaign that marred our tranquility, in the form of a yard-sign war between the Bushies and the Kerrys. Kerry narrowly prevailed, as he did in the actual November voting on the island and in Michigan. Much good it did him. Now he's back windsurfing, but with no camera crews to record his feats.

This summer it is homeland security that has laid its clammy hand on us. When you step off the car ferry in St. James, instead of the familiar line of storefronts, what you first see is an 8-foot-tall steel fence whose sharp-pointed spears bend outward at the top, completely surrounding the dock area to thwart any intruders.

The fence and its twin in Charlevoix, the port city on the mainland that is the other terminus of the Beaver Island Boat Co., were built this spring at a cost of $127,000, divided between the debt-ridden federal government and the dead-broke state of Michigan.

As Harbormaster Margo Marks explained to me, the Maritime Security Act, passed after Sept. 11, required that any ports served by vessels carrying 150 passengers or more must be secured against trespassers or terrorists by mid-2005. "It was either hire security guards 24-7," she said, "or put up the fence."

Now, Beaver Island, with a year-round population of about 500, may seem an unlikely target. But who knows? The terrorists could have the Whisky Point Lighthouse on their list of iconic structures, right after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The new protective measures have been handled with good grace. After the London bombings, passengers on the two-hour voyage between Charlevoix and Beaver Island had their packages examined as they boarded the Emerald Isle. But the dockworkers were efficient and pleasant, the surveillance cameras unobtrusive, and no one has complained.

This despite the island's very different tradition when it comes to law enforcement. Time was, when a lawman was aboard the ferry from Charlevoix, the captain would give an extra toot on the whistle as he entered the harbor here. Any folks who -- for whatever reason -- were reluctant to be interviewed by the law would jump into their boats and spend a little time on one of the neighboring islands until the coast was clear.

But now we have this big fence and, often, a deputy sheriff watching people board the ship. And for what? When a crisis came on Sunday, Aug. 14, the new security measures were unable to cope with it. The drawbridge in downtown Charlevoix carrying traffic over Pine River Channel, the narrow waterway connecting Lake Michigan to Round Lake, where the Beaver Islander docks, would not go up on command that morning, meaning that the boat could not leave the dock.

An electrical surge in the municipal power plant had knocked out switches in the bridge controls, and no one knew how to repair them -- until a Highway Department technician could drive up from Lansing. That meant that the 8:30 trip from Charlevoix didn't leave until 1:15 in the afternoon.

On most Sundays this would have bothered only a few passengers and those waiting for the Sunday papers to arrive on the island. But this was the Sunday of Homecoming Weekend, the busiest day of the summer. On Sunday afternoon and early evening, all the visitors and island folks throng to the Holy Cross Parish Hall for a charity dinner -- a half-chicken, roasted on an outdoor grill; mounds of mashed potatoes and gravy; sweet corn; cole slaw; home-baked biscuits and pies; coffee and cold drinks, $10 for adults, $5 for children.

The bridge problem in Charlevoix discouraged some people from making the trip and delayed others. As a result, the last return trip, which should have left Beaver Island at 5:30 p.m., did not go until 10 p.m. And when it reached Charlevoix, damned if the bridge didn't balk again, refusing to lift and forcing the ferry to circle out beyond the channel.

This time, the problem was solved more quickly, but it was still 12:23 a.m., Harbormaster Marks said, when the ship docked and the weary passengers disembarked.

Now, I ask you, is it just a coincidence that things went haywire around the time the fence went up, or is there a message for those homeland security bureaucrats in Washington?

As Ronald Reagan might have said, "Tear down this fence, Secretary Chertoff!"

davidbroder@washpost.com


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