Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hyperbole--Or What Would Pols Do Without It?

A week ago Wednesday, I received an unusual phone call from a former colleague who lives in New Jersey:

"There's a rumor going around one of our ships hit your bridge. Do me a favor and look out your window."

Since the headquarters for Gap, Inc., blocks most of my view of the Bay and the Bay Bridge, I went to the website for the San Francisco Chronicle. The first thing I saw was the port side of a ship with "HANJIN" written in large white letters. The bow was caved in.

"Wow," I replied. "So, you're working for Hanjin now?"

Had I arrived at work 30 minutes later, I would have seen the ship hit the bridge. But I arrived at work early and had no idea what was happening just a mile (or less) away.

My first reaction was that the pilot and the captain will both lose their licenses. My second thought was what was Hanjin, which is a Korean shipping line, doing with a vessel named Cosco Busan, since Cosco is the national shipping line of China (China Ocean Shipping Co.)? Was the master Korean with a Chinese crew? Or a different nationality? (The last shipping company I worked for leased their ships from a Japanese company. The ships were registered in Micronesia, the captains were Japanese, and the crews were Filipino. English was their common language.)

It didn't take long for the politicians to start shouting. Threats of lawsuits filled the air even as the Chronicle tried to untangle the web of ownership and responsibility. Shouts of the need to improve pilot training filled the air, at least until it came to light that this particular pilot has worked the Bay for over 25 years. Shutting down the Bay on foggy days was strongly suggested--until someone pointed out how common foggy days are around here. Pols who never cared about the maritime industry and who have no clue about how it works--or how vital it is to the local economy--are suddenly experts. And they have to see what the damage is, which involves riding in a Coast Guard helicopter around the Bay to look at... well, there's not a whole lot to see from above because this is not crude oil. It's bunker fuel. It's light and floats close to the surface. It's difficult to photograph unless it's clumped on the beach or smeared on a bird.

And, of course, we have to blame the Coast Guard for their lack of response, even though they were on-scene in a matter of minutes (the Coast Guard base is just on the other side of the island the Bay Bridge is connected to). Forget that it was, indeed, a very foggy day with poor visibility. Forget that their first concern was to get the ship back to port and then to assess the damage. Forget that they were putting booms out. None of that matters because someone forgot to call the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland right away.

Yeah--the same mayors who are so hospitable to the military. Although the Coast Guard is now under Homeland Security (they were under Treasury).

Disclaimer: I have a personal fondness for the Coast Guard. Several friends joined; for years they hosted the Ancient Mariner Regatta for the Sea Scouts on Coast Guard Island; they do vital work keeping the Bay safe and inspecting commercial craft like ferry boats and fishing boats; they do search and rescue; they have the unpleasant task of retrieving the bodies of jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge. Like most branches of the service, they are underfunded. With the closure of most of the military bases in the Bay Area (the Presidio, Treasure Island, Alameda Naval Air Station, Hunter's Point and Mare Island Naval Shipyards, and Hamilton Air Force Base), Coast Guard families don't have the option of military housing.

I don't take kindly to ungrateful pols dissing this particular branch of the service, especially when those same pols have not supported them.

The most outlandish hyperbole, however, had to be from the Port Director of San Francisco who claimed this was the "worst government response since Katrina."


As far as I know, no one has died. There hasn't been a widespread breakdown of services and communication. Yes, marine life has been impacted, boating is being discouraged (to prevent the "tracking" of bunker fuel to unaffected areas and to minimize clean-up cost claims), and commercial fishing has been shut down. The fisherman and the oyster farms are going to be hardest hit financially. But Katrina-type damage? Let's be real, here.

And, by the way, the SF Fire Department has two fire boats right in line-of-sight of the accident. Didn't they notice what was going on? Don't they communicate with the Coast Guard? Couldn't they pick up the radio and find out what was going on?

The seagulls, however, could care less. I'm not sure about the sea lions--I'll have to walk down to Pier 39 and check.