Savannah’s rare winter storm closed the city’s major cargo ports for just more than 24 hours last week, an icy hiccup that was quickly overcome through an extraordinary response by several groups, according to Georgia Ports director Griff Lynch.
“We closed last Wednesday and, by that afternoon, we had an inch to an inch and a half of snow on the ground with ice underneath at both Garden City and Ocean terminals,” Lynch said. “Looking at the weather forecast, we tentatively set Thursday at 1 p.m. as our reopening goal, but we were really in uncharted territory for this part of the country.”
Snow is such a rare occurrence in Savannah that the ports — like the rest of the county — had no snowplows, no salt or brine and even fewer people experienced in dealing with it.
“We asked our people to come in by noon Thursday if it was safe for them to do so, and the response was amazing,” Lynch said. “They were here in force.”
“By 1 p.m., we were staffed. The ILA Clerks and Checkers were at the gates and on the terminal, ready to go. Because we have no snow removal equipment, we had men and women on the small, on-terminal yard trucks, driving back and forth trying to break up the snow and ice.”
R.B. Baker Construction had been doing some work on the terminal and they helped as well with a couple of front-end loaders, Lynch said. But the biggest help came from the Georgia Department of Transportation, which sent a salt and brine truck with a snow plow on the front.
“You always hesitate to single any one person out when so many people did a great job, but Jerry Harper of GDOT was like a superman,” Lynch said. “I barely saw him off that truck in the two days he stayed with us.
“Essentially, one man and a plow cleared the majority of our 1,200-acre terminal.”
Although the river pilots brought in a half-dozen or so ships right after the storm blew through, ice on the vessels made working them prohibitive until Friday morning, Lynch said.
“(Master Pilot) Trey Thompson and his group did an amazing job taking care of the ships and bringing them safely into port, so we were able to jump on them as soon as it was safe,” Lynch said.
“We are so blessed as a port in that, when unusual circumstances arise, we know we can count on everyone involved to rise up to meet the challenges without hesitation.”
Business as usual
Of course, getting back to business quickly is a hallmark of the Port of Savannah, which drove East Coast gains in Asian imports last year. The nation’s fourth-largest container gateway, GPA grew its Asian imports by nearly 11 percent — to 1.2 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units, or TEUs — in the first 11 months of 2017.
A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
Lynch has long asserted that Savannah’s added vessel capacity, operational efficiencies and exceptional workforce has put it head and shoulders above other ports — a point he can back up in black and white as GPA approaches its first 4 million TEU year.
“Since the opening of the expanded Panama Canal, we’re now handling more ships, bigger vessels and larger cargo exchanges,” he said. “By working more weekly vessel calls than any other East Coast port, and serving more Neopanamax ships than any other port in the U.S. Southeast, Savannah has strengthened its position as a vital gateway to the global marketplace.
“It’s only through the incredible efficiency and productivity of GPA employees and the International Longshoremen’s Association — as well as the continued commitment of shippers and customers and the unfailing support of Gov. Nathan Deal and state leaders — that these record volumes are possible.”
A rosy outlook
This year is already setting high expectations as import volumes at the country’s major retail container ports grew 7 percent during 2017 over 2016, wrapping up the year with a strong holiday season, according to the monthly Global Port Tracker report released this week by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.
“Retail had a strong year fueled by growing wages, higher employment and a boost in consumer confidence,” NRF vice president Jonathan Gold said. “Retailers imported more merchandise than ever to meet demand for quality products at affordable prices, and growth is expected to continue in the year ahead.”
Ports covered by Global Port Tracker, including Savannah’s, handled 1.74 million TEUs in November, up 5.8 percent year-over-year. December was estimated at 1.6 million TEUs, up 2.6 percent year-over-year. The total for 2017 is expected to come to 20.1 million TEUs.
“On a percentage basis, 2017 was one of the strongest increases we’ve seen since the end of the Great Recession,” Hackett Associates founder Ben Hackett said.
“That’s no minor achievement at a time when many are trying to talk down the economy. The rate is expected to slow down some, but with 2017’s performance and continuing high consumer confidence, our models show continued growth in the coming year.”
Mary Carr Mayle is a freelance business writer. Her PortSide column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com
ON THE WEB
To see this week’s shipping schedule, go to savannahnow.com.