Savannah, Charleston and other Southern ports work to shrug off Irma

4:42 p.m Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 Local
J. Scott Trubey/STAFF
Savannah, Ga.: A pilot craft guides the Cosco Development, at the time the largest container ship to ever call on an East Coast port, as it plies through the Savannah River en route to the Garden City Terminal on the Savannah River on Thursday, May 11, 2017. J. Scott Trubey/strubey@ajc.com

Ports across the Southeast were shaking off the effects of the winds and rains of Irma, working to get operations back on-line to help merchants re-stock their shelves and ensure supplies of fuel to storm-battered communities.

The port in Charleston was open for business Tuesday with normal operations, while the Savannah port expected to be fully operational Tuesday evening, and ready to load ships that had been waiting for Tropical Storm Irma to clear.

In Florida, ports in Miami, Pensacola and Port Everglades were open Tuesday, with some restrictions. The head of the Sunshine State’s ports council said fuel was beginning to flow to gas stations across the state thanks to operations on land that were back in service.

“There’s a big priority for fuel to come in,” said Doug Wheeler, CEO of Florida Ports Council, the professional organization for the state’s 15 public seaports. “It’s critical whether for people’s everyday lives and for people who need generators, also first responders and for businesses.”

Then-Hurricane Irma slammed Florida over the weekend, devastating communities across the state. The massive storm also caused disruption and damage at ports on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

A squeeze in the fuel supply was putting a crunch on evacuees returning to Florida and to communities in the Georgia that were only beginning to clean up from Irma’s wrath.

Port Everglades near Fort Lauderdale started taking fuel shipments Tuesday, with three tankers waiting offshore, Wheeler said. The port in Tampa expected to open its harbor late Tuesday.

The port in Jacksonville, remained closed to ship traffic as the U.S. Coast Guard assesses the harbor and port facilities. The Jacksonville facility and others in the Southeast will be crucial for the supply of goods to help rebuild Caribbean islands devastated by Irma, Wheeler said.

Wheeler said the recovery process has been a challenge, particularly because of the loss of power in some terminals. But, he said operations are improving each day.

For now, many of the urgently needed building supplies will enter the region via truck. But over time, much of inventory of building materials will arrive from other parts of the world to storm-beaten states such as Florida and Georgia by ship.

In Georgia, ships will begin to arrive at the Savannah port Tuesday night and before dawn Wednesday. But operations have not yet restarted in Brunswick.

Power had yet to be restored to the Brunswick port on Tuesday, said Georgia Ports Authority Executive Griff Lynch. Glynn County also was not permitting people to return to the county, which affects the ports staffing. So far, only critical personnel had yet to return to the facility, he said.

It might be another day or more until the Brunswick facility, which specializes in automobile imports and exports, to re-open, Lynch said.

Still, Lynch credited his agency, the Coast Guard and the International Longshoremen’s Association union for getting Savannah quickly back in business.

“It’s absolutely critical that Savannah but also the other ports are operational so we can get boots on the ground and the supplies to the people in need,” Lynch said.

Ports are part of an economic engine and without them, Lynch said, trade stops.

“People take for granted what we buy in stores every day,” he said. “If the ports aren’t moving the store shelves won’t be filled up.”

Lynch said nine vessels were awaiting entry to the Savannah port.

GPA does not handle fuel at its ports, but Lynch said Colonial Oil, which has a terminal in Savannah, is operating normally.

Last year, Lynch said the ports learned a number of lessons when Hurricane Matthew lashed the Georgia coast. For instance, empty steel containers were tied down and the port did not lose a single unit, he said.

While Matthew brought higher winds, Irma produced a higher storm surge. But the Savannah port avoided flood damage.

Still, the storm hit at an inopportune time for the shipping industry. Many stores have their Christmas shopping season goods on ships now, Lynch said.

“This week was targeted to be one of our busiest weeks for all that peak season goods,” he said.

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