- The Washington Times
Saturday, March 21, 2020

The nation’s biggest ports are wide open for business, despite rumors to the contrary, as they try to rev up after taking a hit from the trade war with China and then the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s some concern and anxiety in the air, and some disgruntled sorts have spread a rumor we’re closed, but we’re moving forward, we’re moving cargo,” said Philip Sanfield, director of media relations for the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest port. “A priority now is helping medical supply companies get their stuff.”

Many of the raw materials as well as manufactured goods used or sold in the U.S. come from Asia, which puts West Coast ports on the front line.

“All of our terminals are open,” he said. “Ships are arriving, longshore is at work, the truck community, railroad folks — everybody’s at work. We are committed to keeping the supply chain running through this crisis.”

While many regions throughout the county are seeing shortages of household items that were hoarded or bought in bulk, such as toilet paper, economists say internal supply chains should be fine. Unlike natural disasters that often disrupt or wreck transportation routes, the nation’s highways and railroads — which take goods from the ports — have not been damaged.

The L.A. port is operating at about 80-85% of capacity, Mr. Sanfield said. It is the only one in the U.S. to move more than five million “20-foot equivalent units,” as cargo containers are called, in 2018. That put it narrowly ahead of the adjoining Port of Long Beach, which took in 4.3 million containers that year.

“Someone is circulating a rumor about ports closing, but nothing could be further from the truth,” said Lee Peterson, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. “Even with the state’s new stay-at-home order, we are a designated essential function, just as is the rest of the supply chain, so we’ll remain open. We are actually fairly busy today with 12 container ships in the port and being worked. Not to mention two dry bulk vessels and four liquid bulk tankers.”

The West Coast had seen fewer goods come through its ports because of the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration as part of its trade battle with China. In January, for example, the Northwest Seaport Alliance reported a decline of more than 19% from January 2019, a difference it attributed to a shipping surge in 2019 that occurred before the tariffs kicked in.

Traffic picked up at the ports after China and the U.S. signed an initial trade deal, but the coronavirus, which started in Wuhan, China, in December, severely limited manufacturing there for weeks.

Slightly more than half of the goods that land at the West Coast ports typically come from China and Hong Kong.

In a conference call Friday arranged by the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce in Washington state, officials said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Port of Tacoma, urged businesses to refute “rumors going around the port is closed.”

The Port of Tacoma and the slightly larger Port of Seattle nearby took in more than 2.7 million in combined containers in 2018, ranking them the eighth and sixth busiest ports, respectively, in the nation that year. The Northwest Seaport Alliance, a joint venture and the fourth largest container gateway by volume, saw traffic dip 3.1% in February from the previous year, with 260,932 containers.

In Los Angeles, the port saw $276 billion in international trade flowing in and out in 2019, roughly half of which moved between China/Hong Kong, Mr. Sanfield said.

In 2015, the most recent year of data for the Port of Tacoma, $21.5 billion of its $52 billion in international trade was tied to China/Hong Kong.

“‘Returning to normal,’ is how we would phrase it,” Mr. Sanfield said of LA’s port traffic. “They aren’t back to 100% to our knowledge, but they seem to have flattened the curve.”

Long Beach saw 19 canceled sailings compared to 14 in the first quarter of 2019, Mr. Peterson said. China is its single biggest trading partner, accounting for 59% of the port’s imports and 21% of its exports last year.

“We expect our first-quarter container units to be down by 5 percent from Q1 2019 due to coronavirus,” he said. “In February, compared to the same month last year, we were down by 10 percent TEUs.”

Other major ports — New York/Newark; Savannah, Georgia; Houston; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans — are all also wide open. Although the administrative staff and buildings have largely shifted to work-at-home, the docks have not.

New Orleans sees about 100 container ships from China per year, accounting for a bit under 10% of its annual imports, but it has seen two arrivals canceled since the outbreak began, said Jessica Ragusa, spokeswoman for the Port of New Orleans.

“The omissions were due to weak exports from China as a result of the coronavirus’ impact on manufacturing,” Ms. Ragusa said. “Industry analysts have indicated manufacturing has picked up in China, so we expect to see a surge in the near future.”

While precise figures were unavailable, the Georgia Ports Authority predicted in February its ports could see a decline of as much as 30 or 40% because of the coronavirus, which would hurt traffic and volume at the Port of Savannah, the nation’s fourth busiest.

“The question is how long is that going to last?” Hugh Tollison, the president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority told local press last week. “I think we’ve got about five to six weeks where we’re going to see some significant declines, but I think after that it will start building back up.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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