SAVANNAH, Ga. — U.S. ports are seeing a booming business right now, with at least three seeing record cargo volumes.
The Port of Savannah shattered cargo records this past fiscal year amid a surge in imports and West Coast backlogs that prompted shippers to reroute goods to the East Coast.
Meanwhile, ports in two Texas cities — Houston and Corpus Christie — also set new records.
All of this cargo volume means even more trucks heading into and out of the ports to haul goods inland.
James Freeman, who operates a small fleet of trucks that travel to and from Port Houston daily, said his business is booming.
“It’s been great,” Freeman said. “If we can get diesel prices back in check, it will be even better.”
The Georgia Ports Authority said Tuesday that docks in Savannah handled nearly 5.8 million container units of imports and exports in the fiscal year that ended June 30. That’s an increase of 8% from a year ago, when the port exceeded 5 million container units for the first time.
“The growth is stunning,” said Griff Lynch, the authority’s executive director.
It’s also kept the fourth-busiest U.S. container port scrambling to catch up. In the past year, the Port of Savannah has hired additional workers, added equipment and increased its container yard capacity by about 25%. And the completion in March of a seven-year, $973 million deepening of Savannah’s shipping channel means ships can carry more cargo without waiting for higher tides.
Still, roughly 40 ships were sitting at anchor offshore Tuesday waiting to transit the Savannah River and unload at the port’s overflowing docks.
Like other U.S. ports, Savannah has been struggling with a flood of imports shipped in containers, giant metal boxes used to transport retail goods from consumer electronics to frozen chickens. Following a slump after the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, trade has rebounded and kept booming amid soaring demand.
Port Houston hit a record for monthly container volumes for the second consecutive month, according to a news release. Officials there say the port handled 323,823 20-foot equivalent units (TEU), an 11% year-over-year increase over the same period last year.
Port Houston handled 335,000 TEUs, a record for the month of May. Year to date, the port has handled 1.8 million TEUs, an 18% year-over-year increase compared to 2021.
“Port Houston is seeing record volumes at our container terminals, but also some delays due to the enormous demand,” Roger Guenther, executive director at Port Houston, said in a statement. “We don’t expect this surge in containers to slow down anytime soon, and we are actively pursuing multiple initiatives to maintain a fluid, high-velocity environment during this time of incredible demand for containerized cargo.”
The Port of Corpus Christi set new tonnage records as well. Officials said it is mostly due to crude oil and refined product exports, in addition to liquid natural gas exports and dry bulk imports.
“These numbers are a testament to the role the Port of Corpus Christi and its industry partners play in the global marketplace, providing certainty in uncertain times,” port chairman Charles W. Zahn Jr said in a statement.
The Corpus Christie Port moved 46.4 million tons of cargo in the second quarter of 2022 and 90.1 million tons for the first six months of the year, eclipsing prior quarterly and half-year records set in 2021.
Back in Savannah, Lynch attributed his port’s increased traffic to existing customers, plus new business from shippers diverting cargo away from the West Coast where ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, have been swamped with waiting ships.
The volume of imports coming into Savannah has more than doubled compared to before the pandemic, Lynch said. The port saw its busiest month on record in May, when nearly 520,000 containers units moved across its docks. Last month, Lynch said, Savannah worked in nine unplanned ships carrying roughly 25,000 container units of additional cargo.
“We do anticipate the volume tapering off toward the end of this year, or slightly earlier,” Lynch said. “I believe that we have peaked and we’re on the downhill side of this.”
Despite the added cargo volume, the Port of Savannah has managed to keep containers from piling up on its terminal. Late last year, the port authority accelerated a $150 million expansion that increased space for storing cargo containers by 25%.
The port authority has also been using four inland sites in different areas of Georgia to temporarily store cargo and free up space at Savannah’s container terminal. Lynch said those “pop-up” container yards are expected to keep operating into 2023.
While inflation has meant higher costs for construction projects at the port, so far it doesn’t appear to have affected cargo volumes, said Joel Wooten, the port authority’s board chairman.
“Looking forward, we’re thinking that in six to nine months, we’re going to see a slowdown” related to inflation, Wooten said.
Back in his Volvo cab on Tuesday, Freeman said he hopes these volume levels stay high, but he said he knows they will “eventually even out.”
“We are in an odd place right now,” Freeman said. “Everything is inflated, and that’s not always a good thing. But for us truckers who can get more loads to haul, it’s definitely nice. Even if diesel is too damn high.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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