Savannah port expanding to handle record cargo, says Georgia Authority

The vessel BBS Fiji unloads two new mobile harbor cranes at the Georgia Ports Authority's Ocean Terminal, Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in Savannah, Ga. Two new mobile harbor cranes will allow the Georgia Ports Authority to grow container handling services at Ocean Terminal. (Stephen B. Morton/Georgia Ports Authority)
The vessel BBS Fiji unloads two new mobile harbor cranes at the Georgia Ports Authority's Ocean Terminal, Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in Savannah, Ga. Two new mobile harbor cranes will allow the Georgia Ports Authority to grow container handling services at Ocean Terminal. (Stephen B. Morton/Georgia Ports Authority)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

The board of the Georgia Ports Authority voted Monday to spend $205 million to expand the Savannah facility, adding to $100 million authorized several months ago.

The expansion is needed because the port has seen a surge in cargo shipments, which is expected to continue, said authority chairman Will McKnight.

The port of Savannah last month broke its February record for volume of cargo handled and is on track to break the March record as well, he said.

After a dip in shipping during the first few months of the pandemic, “Georgia’s container trade has experienced unprecedented growth over the past six months,” McKnight said.

The impact of the recent Suez Canal blockage will slow shipments in the coming weeks, but the impact will not be severe or long lasting, port officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On March 23, a giant cargo ship — the Ever Given — got stuck in the Suez. By the time it was dislodged Monday, more than 300 other ships were waiting in a queue on either side of the canal, tying up billions of dollars in goods.

It will still take about a week to clear the backlog of ships. As long as there aren’t delays, Georgia consumers will not notice items missing from shelves, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the authority.

One-third of the freight coming to Georgia comes via the Suez, he said.

Some ships have been rerouted south around Africa. Others are waiting for the canal to be cleared. “If a delay went on for months, we’ve have problems,” Lynch said.

Georgia’s seaports, among the largest on the East Coast, are crucial to the state’s economy, fueling hundreds of thousands of Georgia jobs.

Like the nation as a whole, Georgia has long imported vastly more than it has exported. The pandemic — which chilled consumer business at restaurants, bars and even grocery stores — spurred a flood of orders for goods from overseas.

Officials did not expect to see the current volume of cargo for several years. The growth prompted them to speed up plans to expand Savannah’s capacity. The expansion project will include berths for loading and unloading more ships. And eight additional cranes will be purchased to handle cargo.

The project, to be complete by the summer of 2023, will increase the port’s capacity by 20%, officials said.

Funding for the work will come from business revenue at the ports, as well as bonds that the authority will issue.

Last month, the Port of Savannah, responsible for 90% of the authority’s business, moved 390,804 container units — 7.2% more cargo than a year ago, Lynch said.

“In terms of cargo volumes, we’ve added the equivalent of an extra month of trade since September,” he said.

The 1,400 workforce at the ports has been stressed. “We are hiring as quickly as we can to get this under control. Mostly, we need heavy equipment operators,” Lynch said.

Those jobs pay between $80,000 and $130,000 a year, he said.

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