What the US port crisis looks like up close

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SAVANNAH, GA – Like toy blocks tossed from the sky, nearly 80,000 shipping containers are stacked in various configurations at the Port of Savannah – 50% more than usual.

Steel boxes wait for ships to transport them to their final destination, or trucks to transport them to warehouses which are themselves crammed up to the rafters. Some 700 containers have been left at the port on the banks of the Savannah River by their owners for a month or more.

“They don’t come and collect their cargo,” complained Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “We have never had the yard as full as this one.

As he speaks, another ship glides silently towards an open berth – the 1,207-foot-long Yang Ming Witness, its decks cluttered with containers full of clothes, shoes, electronics and other items made in factories in Asia. Tall cranes soon tear the thousands of boxes from the ship – no more cargo that needs to be hidden somewhere.

“Definitely,” said Mr. Lynch, “the stress level has never been higher.”

It got to this in the Great Supply Chain Disruption: They’re running out of places to put things in one of the largest ports in the United States. As major ports face a staggering stack of cargoes, what once seemed like a temporary phenomenon – a traffic jam that would eventually dissipate – is increasingly seen as a new reality that may require a substantial overhaul of the industry. global maritime infrastructure.

As the Port of Savannah reduced the backlog, Mr Lynch reluctantly forced ships to wait at sea for more than nine days. On a recent afternoon, more than 20 ships were stuck in the queue, anchored up to 17 miles off the coast of the Atlantic.

Such lines have become common around the world, from the more than 50 ships beached last week in the Pacific near Los Angeles, to a smaller number of terminals in the New York area, to hundreds of stranded ports in China.

The turbulence in the shipping industry and the broader supply chain crisis show no signs of abating. It is a nagging concern across the global economy, challenging once-hopeful assumptions of a vigorous return to growth as vaccines limit the spread of the pandemic.

The disruption helps explain why Germany’s industrial fortunes are sagging, why inflation has become a source of concern for central bankers, and why US manufacturers are now waiting a record 92 days on average to assemble the parts and raw materials they need to make their products, according to the Institute of Supply Management.

At first glance, the upheaval appears to be a series of intertwined product shortages. Because shipping containers are scarce in China, factories that depend on Chinese-made parts and chemicals in the rest of the world have had to limit production.

But the situation at the Port of Savannah speaks to a more complicated and insidious series of overlapping issues. It’s not just that goods are scarce. It’s that products are stuck in the wrong places and separated from where they’re supposed to be by stubborn and ever-changing barriers.

The shortage of finished products at retailers represents the flip side of containers piled up on ships stranded at sea and massed on the banks. The stacking in warehouses is itself a reflection of the shortage of truck drivers needed to transport the goods to their next destinations.

For Mr. Lynch, the manager of Savannah, the frustrations are heightened by a feeling of helplessness in the face of circumstances beyond his control. Whatever it does to manage its docks along the dark Savannah River, it cannot tame the chaos that unfolds on highways, in warehouses, in harbors across the ocean and in the industrial cities around the world.

“The supply chain is overwhelmed and inundated,” Lynch said. “It’s not viable at this point. Everything is out of whack. “

Born and raised in Queens with the pragmatic demeanor to prove it, Mr Lynch, 55, has spent his professional life dealing with the logistical complexities of ocean freight. (“I actually wanted to be a tugboat captain,” he said. “There was only one problem. I’m seasick.”)

Now it faces a storm of unprecedented intensity and contours, a storm that has effectively extended the breadth of the oceans and added risk to sea travel.

Last month, its yard contained 4,500 containers stranded on the docks for at least three weeks. “It’s bordering on ridiculous,” he said.

That these tensions are occurring even in Savannah attests to the extent of the disarray. The third largest container port in the United States after Los Angeles-Long Beach and New York-New Jersey, Savannah has nine berths for container ships and plenty of land for expansion.

To ease congestion, Lynch is overseeing a $ 600 million expansion. It swaps a berth for a larger one to accommodate the larger container ships. It expands the storage yard to an additional 80 acres, adding room for an additional 6,000 containers. It is expanding its yard from five to 18 tracks to allow more trains to stop, creating an alternative to trucking.

But while Lynch sees development as an imperative, he knows that expanding facilities alone won’t solve his problems.

“If there’s no space here,” he said, looking at the stacks of containers, “it doesn’t matter if I have 50 berths.”

Many containers are stacked in five, making it more difficult for the cranes to sort the towers to lift the necessary crates when the trucks arrive to take them away.

In this afternoon, under a merciless sun, the port is about to beat its activity record in a single day: more than 15,000 trucks come and go. However, the pressure is mounting. A tugboat escorts another vessel to the dock – the MSC AGADIR, fresh off the Panama Canal – carrying more cargo that needs to be parked somewhere.

In recent weeks, the closure of a giant container terminal off the Chinese city of Ningbo has added to the delays. Vietnam, a hub for the clothing industry, has been locked up for several months amid a heartbreaking Covid epidemic. Declining cargoes leaving Asia should provide a respite for congested US ports, but Lynch rejects that line.

“Six or seven weeks later, the ships all arrive at the same time,” Lynch said. “It doesn’t help.”

Earlier this year, as shipping prices rose and containers grew scarce, the problem was widely seen as the momentary result of pandemic lockdowns. With schools and offices shutting down, Americans were stocking up on home office supplies and equipment for basement gyms, relying heavily on factories in Asia. Once life reopened, global shipping was supposed to return to normal.

But six months later, congestion is worse, with nearly 13% of the world’s freight capacity blocked by delays, according to data compiled by Sea-Intelligence, an industrial research firm in Denmark.

Many companies now assume that the pandemic has fundamentally changed business life permanently. Those who may never have shopped or shopped for clothes online – especially the elderly – have tasted convenience, forced to adapt to a deadly virus. Many are likely to keep the habit, keeping the pressure on the supply chain.

“Before the pandemic, could we have imagined mum and dad pointing and clicking to buy furniture? Said Ruel Joyner, owner of 24E Design Co., a boutique furniture store that occupies a brick storefront in the graceful historic district of Savannah. Its online sales have tripled in the past year.

In addition to these behavioral changes, the disruption of the supply chain has imposed new frictions.

Mr. Joyner, 46, designs his furniture in Savannah while relying on factories in China and India to manufacture many of his items. The upheaval of the seas slowed deliveries, limiting its sales.

He pointed to a brown leather recliner made for him in Dallas. The factory is struggling to get the tilt mechanism from its supplier in China.

“Where we used to get things in 30 days, they’re now telling us six months,” Joyner said. Customers call to complain.

His experience also highlights how shortages and delays have become a source of concern for fair competition. Giant retailers like Target and Home Depot have responded by storing goods in warehouses and, in some cases, chartering their own ships. These options are not available for the small to medium business.

Bottlenecks have a way of causing more bottlenecks. As many companies ordered additional quantities and earlier, especially as they prepare for the holiday season, the warehouses became crowded. The containers therefore piled up at the Port of Savannah.

Mr Lynch’s team – normally focused on their own facilities – spent time scouring unused warehouse spaces inland, seeking to provide customers with alternative channels for their cargo.

Recently, a large retailer completely filled their 3 million square feet of local warehouse space. With their containers piling up in the yard, port staff worked to ship the cargo by train to Charlotte, NC, where the retailer had more space.

Such creativity may bring minimal relief, but the demands on the port are only intensifying.

On a muggy afternoon in late September, Christmas suddenly felt close. The containers stacked on the riverbanks were surely full of holiday decorations, baking sheets, gifts and other materials for the biggest consumer wave on earth.

Will they get to the stores on time?

“This is the question everyone is asking,” Lynch said. “I think this is a very difficult question.”


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