Georgia ports post record fiscal year for traffic

Shipments surged in Savannah, Brunswick after early pandemic slump

An unprecedented surge of pandemic-spurred online orders propelled Georgia ports to a record fiscal year, officials said Monday.

The Port of Savannah handled more than 5.3 million, 20-foot-equivalent containers during the 12 months ended June 30, up 20% from the previous year. Volume in autos and heavy machinery was up 18%, mostly routed through the Port of Brunswick.

Like the overall global economy, trade through Georgia slumped at the start of the pandemic in early 2020 as factories shut down. But as stay-at-home consumers were prevented from spending money on restaurants, entertainment and travel, they ramped up other purchases.

Trade boomed, said Joel Wooten, chairman of the agency’s board.

“Starting in August, the Georgia Ports Authority experienced the most intense growth in its history,” he said. “It’s a problem but it is a very good problem to have.”

The authority has scrambled to hire trained workers and to purchase new equipment.

The current workforce of about 1,500 includes more than 100 new employees added during the past year, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the authority. Despite the added hands, employees on average are working nearly one-third longer than their normal hours, he said.

While it’s too early to say how strong the usual stocking-up-for-Christmas shipments will be, demand has been hectic enough to create a queue of ships in the harbor waiting to dock and unload. On Monday, 14 vessels were in the line, waiting an average of a day and a half to reach dock, Lynch said.

Officials said the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, underway since 2015, is now nearly 90% complete. The project, which will be completed by year’s end, will deepen the channels to permit the most massive ships to move in and out of the port with fewer worries about tides.