Missing Passengers, Moving Cargo. How PortMiami Is Trading Through The Pandemic
Port Miami is a magnet for economic activity in normal times. It is at the heart of the South Florida tourism industry with cruise lines and the cargo container trading industry.
But the cruise lines don’t sail with passengers. Last week, Carnival Cruise Line announced that it would sail from US ports like Miami on April 30th at the earliest. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have also pushed back at the earliest if they are back to sea by late spring. And other cruise lines sailing out of Port Miami have delayed returns to the seas.
It ensures a quiet north side of the port. But the south side was busy with record levels of cargo.
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Steel shipping containers are stacked in the port’s terminal yards, creating freight quarters with three, four, five or more containers. Dozens can line up to pick up the boxes and drive them through the port tunnel. They drop 120 feet below sea level below Biscayne Bay before connecting to I-395 and traveling to warehouses, customers and storage locations across South Florida.
These short trips are called drayage and are one of the sticking points in the global retail chain.
Local shipping companies complain about delays in the port when picking up containers. They said drivers can wait more than three hours for a container to lower onto their truck. Business thrives on speed and waiting times mean drivers can make fewer trips in a day.
“A small challenge that has to be overcome when retrieving the containers on certain days,” said port director Juan Kuryla WLRN, especially on the last day of free storage at the port’s terminal operators. “There could be a lot of trucks coming in to pick up these imports [on those days]and that creates a little overload from time to time. “
In December, owners of items in the freight containers had to reserve truck drivers at least a week in advance, and the opening hours of at least one of the three companies that operate a freight terminal limited the amount of time trucks could pick up the shipments, according to the Journal of Commerce , a news magazine for the retail industry.
A custom office furniture maker in South Florida told WLRN that it had waited nearly three weeks to finally receive a container of 4 by 8 foot laminate panels. It cost him nearly $ 4,000 in storage fees before the cargo finally left port.
There are three independent companies operating cargo terminals in the port. The largest operator responsible for half of the volume, Seaboard, has not seen any congestion issues in the last three months of the year when trading was at record levels, according to a port official.
A second terminal operator, the Port of Miami Terminal Operating Company, was open to trucks last weekend.
“I love volume,” said Kuryla. “I love increasing throughput. Can things be done a little faster from the other terminals? Right. Sure. You always have that balance.”
A terminal truck stands under a gantry crane to load a container onto the Regula before it leaves for Nassau on January 21, 2021. Port Miami saw record trading volumes thanks to a surge in imports.
Larger ships through the widened Panama Canal reach Miami after deepening the bottom of the bay. And rail has been connecting the port with the rest of the country since 2015. As the pandemic progressed, international trade has recovered and the port has seen record traffic. But instead of cruise passengers, it’s TEUs – short for 20-foot equivalent, the standard measuring stick for shipping containers – that overcrowd the dock.
At 107,000 TEU, October was the busiest month ever for freight in the port. That was 1.5% more than in the previous record month in October 2019.
It makes sense that October is a big month for ocean freight. It’s just before the holidays. Huge ships from China arrive on time for Christmas buyers in the USA with industrial goods. Smaller ships sail to the Caribbean and Latin America. Hotels and resorts fill up with winter tourists. But of course that was not the case in October. Tourism is just an indication of what it would normally be. Instead, it is the pent-up demand from the slow spring and summer and other factors that feed freight traffic.
“We’re seeing some very nice numbers on imports,” said Kuryla.
He credits people spending money on their homes during the pandemic and points to imports of tiles, marble and granite from Europe.
Last Thursday there was a thin layer of wispy cloud cover over the mainland and along Miami Beach. It was late morning and two ships were on the quay as crews were loading and unloading containers. The Maersk Senang was the largest of the two. It was on the way to Portugal. A little further along the harbor, the Regula stopped before heading to Nassau.
It was positioned under two cranes. One reached on the ship’s dock to grab a shipping container, lifted it vertically, then brought it ashore, hovered over a terminal truck and set it on its bed before swinging back into the ship, and the truck brought the steel box to a container yard, where it is waiting to be picked up.
A second crane performed the same choreography, but in reverse order. A terminal truck drives up and waits for the crane distributor to settle on top of the crate, grabs it and lifts it onto the deck of the ship.
It is an orchestration of power that moves tons of trade products in and out of the port, creating jobs here and in the larger trade, logistics and transportation industries that rely on the growing demand.
A line of gantry cranes used to load and unload ocean freighters on the south side of Port Miami, January 21, 2021.
A third ship, the Astrid Schulte, had just passed through Government Cut, the economic and maritime passage to and from South Florida. It had to move 1,000 TEU before leaving Miami en route to Veracruz, Mexico.
This was the last in a series of three busy days in port last week. A day earlier, a ship that began its voyage in China and then South Korea asked Port Miami with more than 2,000 TEU to move. And on Tuesday two ships – one from Italy and Spain, the other from southern China, Singapore and the Middle East – with almost 5,500 TEU docked to be loaded or unloaded.
Goods traffic has set records in recent months due to imports. In the past three months, furniture has become a top item for the port – most of it comes from China and Vietnam. T-shirts, socks, underwear, and other clothing from Central America are also great merchandise. And in the port there are more and more refrigerated containers with food from overseas.
According to data firm World City, exports fell nearly 20% year over year in November while imports rose 13%. And with the value of the imports, so did all the port trade.