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America's Port Crisis Threatens Delays to Holiday Deliveries

Cargo ships carrying hundreds of thousands of shipping containers full of holiday gifts, electronics, decorations, and more are languishing off the coasts outside America's largest ports, threatening to disrupt this year's Black Friday and holiday shopping season — and there might be worse in store in the years ahead.

The fact that the novel coronavirus disrupted global supply chains in 2020 is both common knowledge and obviously understandable, but even supply chain professionals, millions of businesses large and small, and the managers of our vital commercial infrastructure did not expect things to drag on this long.

Worse, there's concern that the scrambled supply chains around the world won't be cleared up anytime soon, if ever.

"We’ve never had the yard as full as this," Georgia Ports Authority director Griff Lynch told the NY Times this week. The Port of Savannah, the third-largest container port in the United States, is clogged up with at least 80,000 shipping containers, an increase of 50% over the port's typical volume this time of year.

Part of the problem is that the importers who own those containers aren't coming to pick up their merchandise. Either they have no warehouse themselves to hold the products or they can't find truck drivers to haul the containers.

And as those containers sit on the docks in Savannah, more than 20 massive cargo ships sat anchored up to 17 miles off the coast, waiting for space to free up in the port so they can offload even more shipping containers sent from factories all throughout Asia.

In California, meanwhile, about half a million shipping containers stuffed into and onto more than 60 ships anchored offshore, some of which are almost half a kilometer in length and capable of carrying upwards of 20,000, 20-foot shipping containers at a time.

"Part of the problem is the ships are double or triple the size of the ships we were seeing 10 or 15 years ago," Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, told Insider in September. "They take longer to unload. You need more trucks, more trains, more warehouses to put the cargo."

To complicate matters even further, there is a critical shortage of truck drivers in the US, so even as the volume of cargo increases rapidly, the number of drivers that ports rely on to clear out the docks remains roughly the same as it was pre-Covid — or maybe even less.

On top of all this, there is also just the actual work of having to managing all of these containers.

The more congested a port gets — both in terms of the number of containers that need to be moved and the number of trucks and trains needed to move them out — the more difficult it becomes to actually locate a specific shipping container and move it from a container stack to the vehicle or locomotive that is tasked with bringing it to a retailer's warehouse.

Shipping containers are stacked five deep in the Port of Savannah. If you have to reach the second container from the bottom of a stack, you have to move the containers above it around to pull it out and get it on a truck. In other ports, stacks can rise even higher, making the work that much more challenging.

And all the while, the number of new containers coming in grows, so even as the Port of Savannah recently broke a record for activity in a single day, with more than 15,000 trucks moving cargo out of the port, a single ship – the MSC Agadir out of Hong Kong, with a capacity of 8,886 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) – unloaded its cargo in Savannah, making Lynch's efforts a game of two-steps-forward-one-step-back.

“The supply chain is overwhelmed and inundated,” he told the NY Times. “It’s not sustainable at this point. Everything is out of whack.”

The Port Crisis Could Disrupt Holiday Shopping Plans, and that's Just the Start

The port crisis isn't just a problem for logistics professionals or even just Americans, but similar port congestion is afflicting Chinese ports, as well.

And if ships can't load up and leave Chinese ports on time, they can't make the weeks-long journey to the destination ports on time to unload all those holiday items that everyone is expecting to start ordering online in the coming month and a half.

Ruel Joyner, the owner of a boutique furniture company in Savannah called 24E Design Co., told the Times that the shipping delays have left him unable to fill customer orders for products manufactured in China and India.

This article originally appeared in Interesting Engineering.

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