Southeast US ports shuttering as Irma barrels down

Hurricane Irma is shaping up to be potentially catastrophic to shippers’ supply chains and shipments as the storm now threatens not only the Caribbean but the entire southeast United States.

Ports from Miami to Charleston now lie in the Category 5 storm’s projected path, most within mandatory evacuation zones, and are closing their gates in anticipation of landfall this weekend. On road and rail, capacity is tightening as transportation providers race to move cargo out of low-lying areas.

Irma is now forecast to make landfall in Florida early on Saturday, likely as a Category 4 hurricane. The storm is then projected to head north, slowly diminishing in scale and size, before reaching Georgia by Monday and South Carolina before Tuesday morning.

Although comparisons to Hurricane Harvey, the Category 3 storm that hit the Gulf Coast a little more than a week ago, are abundant, supply chains farther east are noticeably different and the consequences of a larger, stronger storm will be different too, according to Larry Gross, a senior transportation analyst at FTR Associates.

“If the damage is confined to South Florida, that will be bad, but from an overall network perspective, Miami is not the strategic interchange location that Houston is,” Gross told on Thursday. “The strain will come from the movement of relief and/or reconstruction materials into the area, taxing the truck supply further.”

The transport impact will become more severe if the storm travels northward along the currently projected track, Gross said. “The ports of Jacksonville, Savannah, and Charleston all stand to be disrupted.”

Both the Florida and Georgia governors have issued evacuation orders for areas east of Interstate 95, where both states’ major ports sit. An evacuation order in South Carolina is expected Saturday, according to the governor.

Every Florida port along the Atlantic coastline is scheduled to shut its gates by close of business Friday. At Miami, all gates are already closed, though vessel services will remain operational through 12 p.m. local time Friday. At Port Everglades, gates remain open for pick-up only and are scheduled to remain open until 5 p.m. Thursday. Jaxport’s gates and vessel operations were functioning Thursday but are scheduled to cease entirely on Friday. “All cargo operations will be completed in advance of that time,” Nancy Rubin, a Jaxport spokesperson, told Thursday.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were three container ships still at berth at Miami, two at Port Everglades, and two at Jacksonville.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were three container ships still at berth at Miami, two at Port Everglades, and two at Jacksonville.

As of 11 a.m. on Thursday, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) meteorologist under contract, John Wetherbee, told the port that the current track of Irma calls for a direct hit on Savannah on Monday morning likely as a Category 1 hurricane. By Thursday evening the path of the storm had shifted slightly to the west, putting Savannah to the right of the storm, the more dangerous side to be on with a greater potential for tornados. The port on Thursday was working all-out to complete vessel operations on eight ships at Savannah and get them out to sea. By Thursday afternoon, five ships remained. The port will square off stacks of loaded containers, tie down stacks of empty containers, and secure to the ground its 146 rubber-tire gantry cranes and 27 ship-to-shore cranes along the longest contiguous quay in the Americas. According to port officials, Savannah’s Garden City Terminal will do more than 11,000 gate moves by close of business Thursday.

“We got an 11 a.m. update and quite frankly, again the cone of uncertainty is fairly wide, but if you look at the center of the storm it’s headed right for Richmond Hill [20 miles southwest of Savannah] and essentially goes right up the Savannah River,” GPA executive director Griff Lynch told a meeting of dockworkers, stevedores, and other port workers on Thursday morning. “So it’s not a great forecast for us, and the challenge that we have this year versus last year with [Hurricane] Matthew is that we’re on the right side of the storm where the winds will cause a greater tidal surge so that is on all of our minds for sure.”

Lynch told the meeting, which a JOC reporter was invited to attend, that current forecasts call for tropical storm-force winds to begin arriving in the area on Sunday morning and the plan is to have the Garden City terminal, the largest terminal in the Americas, fully shut down by 8 a.m. local time on Saturday morning to avoid any possible overlap. The last ship scheduled to leave the port, the CMA CGM Ivanhoe, is scheduled to depart at 5 a.m. Saturday morning. A storm surge could be 8 to 10 feet and as high as 15 feet, according to Wetherbee.

The ships are expected to head east into the Atlantic to avoid Irma if, as the early Thursday forecast suggested, it works its way up the Eastern coast of Florida. Irma would be the second hurricane to impact Savannah in a year. “I would expect them to get as far east as they can, as fast as they can,” Lynch said.

Matthew, the first hurricane to hit Savannah since 1979, struck in early October last year. Together they raise questions about how immune Savannah is to hurricanes. Historically since it is so far west along the coast, Savannah was thought to be out of the normal path of hurricanes, but that has never been proven and could just be luck.

At the Port of Charleston, normal gate hours are planned through and including Saturday — though port officials said Thursday that may change depending on the scope of the governor’s imminent evacuation order.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were four container ships still at berth at the Charleston port.

“We will have normal gate hours through Saturday,” Erin Dhand, a South Carolina Ports Authority spokesperson told on Thursday. “We expect vessel operations to continue through Saturday night, and berthing requests continue to come in. We are making storm preparations as needed on terminals and will work ships as long as we are allowed and safely able to do so.”

It was unclear on Thursday whether the governor of South Carolina is considering a voluntary or mandatory evacuation for the eastern reaches of the state. “A voluntary evacuation doesn’t affect us as much as a mandatory evacuation, which means the reversal of all outbound lanes,” Dhand said.

Motor carriers are being encouraged to continue moving as much freight as possible prior to storm impacts arriving in the southeast. Several truck carriers told under the condition of anonymity that resources are spread incredibly thin, especially so soon after Hurricane Harvey.

A great deal of equipment is still being used for the relief effort in the Gulf area and as motor carriers are encouraged by ocean carriers, port authorities, and shippers to race cargo out of the southeast, capacity has diminished quickly. Longhaul spot market prices tripled, reportedly between $5,000 and $10,000, in the immediate aftermath of Harvey, driven by the capacity shortage but also rising diesel fuel prices, after Harvey crippled US oil supplies travelling through the US Gulf Coast. With those spot rates still not down to seasonal levels, it may make intermodal a more attractive option for shippers shortly after hurricane season comes to a close.

“Certainly, higher fuel prices will make intermodal more attractive,” said Gross.

But the US East Coast rail network is also poised for a potential catastrophe, considering Irma’s projected course right through the head office of one of the two largest railways there.

“With Jacksonville also serving as the centralized dispatching location for the entirety of CSX [Transportation], there is an additional layer of potential trouble if the storm makes a direct hit there,” Gross said.

Both East Coast railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway, have issued customer advisories.

The Jacksonville-based CSX has told customers to expect delays for traffic moving in and out of Miami, although it did not provide details on whether those delays would be hours-long or days-long, as experienced during Hurricane Harvey.

CSX has told that it intends to do everything it can to “protect employees, rail traffic, and infrastructure from potential risks” even though “it is not known the level of impact the hurricane will have on CSX operations.”

NS said it is preparing for Hurricane Irma based on projections that show the storm will impact the southeast coastal areas.

“Traffic en route to the areas will be held at various yards throughout the [NS] system in an effort to alleviate congestion in the affected regions. Additionally, NS is issuing embargoes for the these locations,” the railroad said in a statement. “[NS] will be working with customers in these areas to identify switching needs and service curtailment.”

The NS engineering team is staging resources, including ballast trains, equipment, and generators, and will be prepared to commence storm recovery efforts once it is safe to do so, the company added.

Irma will only be the beginning of the story, said Gross. Not only are two more storms brewing in the waters of the Gulf and the Atlantic, but the autumn peak shipping season is just about to begin. Irma will be a proving ground for East Coast transportation providers going into one of the most profitable times of the year, Gross said. “Anyone with the capability to move freight will find a warm reception this autumn and throughout peak season.”

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