Caribbean, US Southeast shippers prep for Irma disruption

A little more than a week after Hurricane Harvey roiled Gulf Coast supply chains, another larger and stronger storm is threatening days-long delays and significant damage to cargo in the Caribbean and US Southeast.

Hurricane Irma, now the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic since 2005, has been characterized as a “potentially catastrophic” storm that could add billions of dollars more to the economic damage already done this hurricane season.

Following swiftly in Harvey’s wake, Irma will test the resiliency of supply chains dependent on the US Southeast as well as the Gulf Coast. For one, it’s unclear if ships rerouted to avoid disruption in Houston will be able to reach East Coast ports before Irma sweeps in. A heavy hit on Florida and the Southeast would strain already stressed truck and rail networks.

Container terminals in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are expected to close Wednesday, when Irma is forecast to make landfall. Farther north, the US Coast Guard notified the South Florida ports of Port Miami, Port Everglades, and the Port of Palm Beach on Tuesday that so-called “Port Condition Whiskey” will go into effect at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, giving them 72 hours notice before gale force winds will require terminals to suspend operations. Ports even farther north, such as Canaveral and Jacksonville, are not yet under any Coast Guard advisory, but that could change within a matter of days.

The Category 5 Irma has the strongest winds ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, according to the National Hurricane Center, and its winds have become so strong — sustaining gusts of more than 180 miles per hour — that seismometers meant to track earthquakes are recording disturbances from crashing waves and bending trees.

The US Coast Guard on Tuesday advised ocean carriers to steer away from the Caribbean. The storm is expected to slam the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by Wednesday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The US Coast Guard has encouraged vessels to vacate ports in the storm’s path in the Caribbean. Vessels bound for the US Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico unable to depart within 24 hours prior to the storm’s arrival have been advised to seek alternate destinations.

Aftering hitting the Caribbean, forecasts suggest Irma will likely make landfall in Florida by the weekend. Officials at Port Miami and Port Everglades said they were monitoring the storm system, but were not prepared to announce official closures.

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