Ships line up at Port of Savannah with cargo diverted from West Coast

Container ships tie up at the Port of Savannah.

Combined ShapeCaption
Container ships tie up at the Port of Savannah.

The line of ships waiting at anchor at the Port of Savannah is back to record lengths, partly because so much cargo has been diverted from the West Coast to avoid any labor-related disruptions, officials said Tuesday.

About 40 ships are at anchor off the coast — roughly as many as during the worst of the supply chain backups last year — as workers on the dock hectically move containers, loading and unloading ships, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

“The demand we are seeing is completely unprecedented,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are seeing more ships and bigger ships. And the ships are full.”

The intense activity at the port is a sign that regardless of whatever else is going on in the U.S. economy, the purchase of goods from overseas has thus far continued. In June, the Port of Savannah handled 494,107 containers, up 10.8% from the same month last year.

For the fiscal year that ended last month, the port handled 5.76 million containers, 8% more than the previous year. The other Georgia port, the Port of Brunswick, handles mostly vehicles and machinery.

“It’s a sign that Savannah is a very desirable terminal,” said Joe Wooten, chair of the authority.

However, seeing the trade as a parallel to the overall economy is iffy, since much of the recent surge is fueled by a labor dispute that has shifted shipping patterns. While tens of thousands of West Coast workers continued working after the July 1 expiration of their contract, the situation has been precarious enough to persuade many shippers to find alternatives.

“A lot of the cargo has been diverted to the East Coast, and not just Savannah,” Lynch said.

Rail lines from the port run to cities far to the west, which allow delivery of goods that typically arrive in California, he said. In the past quarter, rail cargo from Savannah to Memphis was up 17%. Rail cargo from Savannah to Chicago was up 60%.

But it is not just a West Coast shift.

Except for just a couple months at the start of the pandemic in 2020, the Port of Savannah has seen steady and strong growth in its business. Savannah is now the second-largest port on the East Coast and the third-largest port in the United States.

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Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Last year, when supply chain wrangles were at their worst, the port saw dozens of ships queue up. But the backlog then was partly because the pandemic surge had overwhelmed Savannah’s facilities and staffing, while inland retailers were struggling with a shortage of truckers.

Even after getting unloaded, containers piled up on the port property, sometimes waiting for weeks.

But officials in the fall opened new rail lines, expanded berths, and created new inland storage areas — and dramatically slashed the gridlock within the port.

The average wait time is still nearly 8 days, Lynch said. “We want that to be four or five.”