Georgia ports don’t foresee volume bounceback anytime soon

Griff Lynch, the Georgia Ports Authority executive director, doesn’t expect an uptick in cargo volume anytime soon as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on global supply chains.

“The longer this goes, the longer it’s going to take to get the ship righted,” Lynch said. “At minimum, you’re talking about three-quarters of a year before we start seeing some positive numbers again.”

The Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) operates the deepwater ports of Savannah and Brunswick as well as inland terminals in Chatsworth, Bainbridge and Columbus. Like seaports throughout the United States, the ports of Savannah and Brunswick are being negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were off by 18.5% in March, which is bad, but it’s a lot better than we were actually anticipating when we went into March,” Lynch said. “March last year was one of the strongest months we ever had at the Georgia ports, so we knew it was insurmountable going in with what was happening.

“We thought it would be really, really bad — I’m talking 25% was our estimate at one point. We came in at 18.5%, which is still pretty bad, especially at the Georgia ports, where we had such a long history of topping month on month with record volumes. But we’re in a new world right now and we have to adapt and adjust,” he said.

The Port of Savannah in March moved 335,789 twenty-foot equivalent units, a decrease of 74,537 TEUs compared to the same month last year.

“April will probably be a little bit better than March as far as year-over-year, and then I think May and June will be in that March range,” Lynch said. “March was driven by the loss of imports as a result of China’s shutdown. Things started to pick up in March in China little by little and we’re benefiting from that in April, so I think April’s numbers are a little bit stronger.”

Ensuing shutdowns in the United States and Europe are expected to negatively affect the GPA’s volumes in May and June, Lynch said.

“Everything’s being negatively impacted, there’s no escaping it, with the exception, exports are still strong, which is great to see. March was actually the third-best month ever for exports for us. Last March was the best export month ever, but the second place was April 2015. … If you want to hold onto something bright, that’s a bright spot,” Lynch said.

He said the GPA’s exports include forest products, poultry and Georgia clay. 

“I think what helped the March numbers grow was the first phase of the trade deal,” Lynch said. “We saw an immediate uptick in volume on the export side — again, bright spot.”
Roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) cargo also was a bright spot for the GPA in March.

The GPA in March handled 66,318 units of cars, trucks and heavy machinery, an increase of 25.7% over the prior year. For the fiscal year through the end of March, Georgia’s ports have handled 505,192 ro-ro units, an increase of 5% or 24,143 units compared to the same period last year.

“Obviously ro-ro’s going to go as manufacturing goes. Auto manufacturers have shut their plants down, and people aren’t going to stores buying cars because they’re shut down. We’re going to see that sector slow down as well. I think that will be significant moving forward until things get started again,” Lynch said.

He said in recent years the GPA has developed land surrounding the Port of Brunswick and leases facilities to auto processors and OEMs.

“Now we have several ro-ro carriers calling and saying, ‘Hey, can we bring some volume down there that normally wouldn’t come there?’ And we’re saying, ‘Yeah, bring it on, whatever you guys need, the storage is there for you to use.’ Literally today we got a call. What’s happening when you go around the nation, other ports are filling up. Cars are not moving and there’s a backlog. Thankfully at the Georgia ports, we haven’t seen that. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but we haven’t seen it yet because of the amount of space and the investments we’ve made. I’m glad to see the ro-ro carriers are taking advantage of that,” Lynch said.

Lynch also was happy to report none of the GPA’s approximately 1,400 employees have been laid off during the coronavirus crisis.

“We need to be there for them right now. While business is down, we’re just trying to be really smart about how we run our business and we’ve got everybody working,” he said.

Lynch said the GPA has only had “a couple” of employees test positive for COVID-19. “Those are cleared now and we’ve not had any in the last week or two.”

He said the GPA has employed an “isolate and operate” strategy to battle the spread of the coronavirus.

“We had one instance where we had an operator test positive and we isolated the folks that had spent time with that operator, we took the RTG [crane] out of service and we deep cleaned it. That was several weeks ago and everything is fine and back to normal,” Lynch said. “As far as precautionary measures, we’ve increased the cleaning services tremendously and we’ve started temp checks at our gates. We will be temp checking all employees in the coming weeks.”

Lynch said if the coronavirus had not hit, the GPA would have had another record fiscal year to report. Now he doesn’t even expect positive numbers this summer.

“If I was a betting man, I’d say that this time next year we have some positive numbers, but before then would be questionable,” Lynch said.