Peter S. Goodman, photographs by Erin Schaff
‘It’s Not Sustainable’: What America’s Port Crisis Looks Like Up Close
An enduring traffic jam at the Port of Savannah reveals why the chaos in global shipping is likely to persist.
Published Oct. 10, 2021; Updated Oct. 14, 2021
SAVANNAH, Ga. — Like toy blocks hurled from the heavens, nearly 80,000 shipping containers are stacked in various configurations at the Port of Savannah — 50 percent more than usual.
The steel boxes are waiting for ships to carry them to their final destination, or for trucks to haul them to warehouses that are themselves stuffed to the rafters. Some 700 containers have been left at the port, on the banks of the Savannah River, by their owners for a month or more.
“They’re not coming to get their freight,” complained Griff Lynch, the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “We’ve never had the yard as full as this.”
As he speaks, another vessel glides silently toward an open berth — the 1,207-foot-long Yang Ming Witness, its decks jammed with containers full of clothing, shoes, electronics and other stuff made in factories in Asia. Towering cranes soon pluck the thousands of boxes off the ship — more cargo that must be stashed somewhere.
“Certainly,” Mr. Lynch said, “the stress level has never been higher.”
It has come to this in the Great Supply Chain Disruption: They are running out of places to put things at one of the largest ports in the United States. As major ports contend with a staggering pileup of cargo, what once seemed like a temporary phenomenon — a traffic jam that would eventually dissipate — is increasingly viewed as a new reality that could require a substantial refashioning of the world’s shipping infrastructure.
As the Savannah port works through the backlog, Mr. Lynch has reluctantly forced ships to wait at sea for more than nine days. On a recent afternoon, more than 20 ships were stuck in the queue, anchored up to 17 miles off the coast in the Atlantic.
Such lines have become common around the globe, from the more than 50 ships marooned last week in the Pacific near Los Angeles to smaller numbers bobbing off terminals in the New York area, to hundreds waylaid off ports in China.
The turmoil in the shipping industry and the broader crisis in supply chains is showing no signs of relenting. It stands as a gnawing source of worry throughout the global economy, challenging once-hopeful assumptions of a vigorous return to growth as vaccines limit the spread of the pandemic.
The disruption helps explain why Germany’s industrial fortunes are sagging, why inflation has become a cause for concern among central bankers, and why American manufacturers are now waiting a record 92 days on average to assemble the parts and raw materials they need to make their goods, according to the Institute of Supply Management.
On the surface, the upheaval appears to be a series of intertwined product shortages. Because shipping containers are in short supply in China, factories that depend on Chinese-made parts and chemicals in the rest of the world have had to limit production.
But the situation at the port of Savannah attests to a more complicated and insidious series of overlapping problems. It is not merely that goods are scarce. It is that products are stuck in the wrong places, and separated from where they are supposed to be by stubborn and constantly shifting barriers.
The shortage of finished goods at retailers represents the flip side of the containers stacked on ships marooned at sea and massed on the riverbanks. The pileup in warehouses is itself a reflection of shortages of truck drivers needed to carry goods to their next destinations.
For Mr. Lynch, the man in charge in Savannah, frustrations are enhanced by a sense of powerlessness in the face of circumstances beyond his control. Whatever he does to manage his docks alongside the murky Savannah River, he cannot tame the bedlam playing out on the highways, at the warehouses, at ports across the ocean and in factory towns around the world.
“The supply chain is overwhelmed and inundated,” Mr. Lynch said. “It’s not sustainable at this point. Everything is out of whack.”
Born and raised in Queens with the no-nonsense demeanor to prove it, Mr. Lynch, 55, has spent his professional life tending to the logistical complexities of sea cargo. (“I actually wanted to be a tugboat captain,” he said. “There was only one problem. I get seasick.”)
Now, he is contending with a storm whose intensity and contours are unparalleled, a tempest that has effectively extended the breadth of oceans and added risk to sea journeys.
Last month, his yard held 4,500 containers that had been stuck on the docks for at least three weeks. “That’s bordering on ridiculous,” he said.
That these tensions are playing out even in Savannah attests to the magnitude of the disarray. The third-largest container port in the United States after Los Angeles-Long Beach and New York-New Jersey, Savannah boasts nine berths for container ships and abundant land for expansion.
To relieve the congestion, Mr. Lynch is overseeing a $600 million expansion. He is swapping out one berth for a bigger one to accommodate the largest container ships. He is extending the storage yard across another 80 acres, adding room for 6,000 more containers. He is enlarging his rail yard to 18 tracks from five to allow more trains to pull in, building out an alternative to trucking.
But even as Mr. Lynch sees development as imperative, he knows that expanded facilities alone will not solve his problems.
“If there’s no space out here,” he said, looking out at the stacks of containers, “it doesn’t matter if I have 50 berths.”
Many of the containers are piled five high, making it harder for cranes to sort through the towers to lift the needed boxes when trucks arrive to take them away.
On this afternoon, under a merciless sun, the port is on track to break its record for activity in a single day — more than 15,000 trucks coming and going. Still, the pressure builds. A tugboat escorts another ship to the dock — the MSC AGADIR, fresh from the Panama Canal — bearing more cargo that must be parked somewhere.
In recent weeks, the shutdown of a giant container terminal off the Chinese city of Ningbo has added to delays. Vietnam, a hub for the apparel industry, was locked down for several months in the face of a harrowing outbreak of Covid. Diminished cargo leaving Asia should provide respite to clogged ports in the United States, but Mr. Lynch dismisses that line.
“Six or seven weeks later, the ships come in all at once,” Mr. Lynch said. “That doesn’t help.”
Early this year, as shipping prices spiked and containers became scarce, the trouble was widely viewed as the momentary result of pandemic lockdowns. With schools and offices shut, Americans were stocking up on home office gear and equipment for basement gyms, drawing heavily on factories in Asia. Once life reopened, global shipping was supposed to return to normal.
But half a year later, the congestion is worse, with nearly 13 percent of the world’s cargo shipping capacity tied up by delays, according to data compiled by Sea-Intelligence, an industry research firm in Denmark.
Many businesses now assume that the pandemic has fundamentally altered commercial life in permanent ways. Those who might never have shopped for groceries or clothing online — especially older people — have gotten a taste of the convenience, forced to adjust to a lethal virus. Many are likely to retain the habit, maintaining pressure on the supply chain.
“Before the pandemic, could we have imagined mom and dad pointing and clicking to buy a piece of furniture?” said Ruel Joyner, owner of 24E Design Co., a boutique furniture outlet that occupies a brick storefront in Savannah’s graceful historic district. His online sales have tripled over the past year.
On top of those changes in behavior, the supply chain disruption has imposed new frictions.
Mr. Joyner, 46, designs his furniture in Savannah while relying on factories from China and India to manufacture many of his wares. The upheaval on the seas has slowed deliveries, limiting his sales.
He pointed to a brown leather recliner made for him in Dallas. The factory is struggling to secure the reclining mechanism from its supplier in China.
“Where we were getting stuff in 30 days, they are now telling us six months,” Mr. Joyner said. Customers are calling to complain.
His experience also underscores how the shortages and delays have become a source of concern about fair competition. Giant retailers like Target and Home Depot have responded by stockpiling goods in warehouses and, in some cases, chartering their own ships. These options are not available to the average small business.
Bottlenecks have a way of causing more bottlenecks. As many companies have ordered extra and earlier, especially as they prepare for the all-consuming holiday season, warehouses have become jammed. So containers have piled up at the Port of Savannah.
Mr. Lynch’s team — normally focused on its own facilities — has devoted time to scouring unused warehouse spaces inland, seeking to provide customers with alternative channels for their cargo.
Recently, a major retailer completely filled its 3 million square feet of local warehouse space. With its containers piling up in the yard, port staff worked to ship the cargo by rail to Charlotte, N.C., where the retailer had more space.
Such creativity may provide a modicum of relief, but the demands on the port are only intensifying.
On a muggy afternoon in late September, Christmas suddenly felt close at hand. The containers stacked on the riverbanks were surely full of holiday decorations, baking sheets, gifts and other material for the greatest wave of consumption on earth.
Will they get to stores in time?
“That’s the question everyone is asking,” Mr. Lynch said. “I think that’s a very tough question.”