Maritime industry bands together to weather supply chain storm

Steve Blust said he doesn’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict when U.S. supply chain flows will return to normal in a post-coronavirus world.

“I’m still trying to buy one on Amazon,” joked Blust, president of the Containerization & Intermodal Institute (CII) and the International Institute of Container Lessors (IICL) and a former chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). 

Steve Blust has been heartened to see people come together to fight COVID-19. (Photo: BSYA)

Blust turned serious just as quickly as he tossed out a supply chain joke.

“While I do not have a crystal ball to foresee when the adverse impact on our lives and businesses from COVID-19 will diminish, I am optimistic that social and economic recoveries will proceed as expeditiously as possible as a result of the great efforts by individuals and organizations that are working together within their communities and industries in meeting the challenges that we face today and in the future,” he told American Shipper.

As president of CII, a nonprofit headquartered in Cranford, New Jersey, that promotes international trade and the intermodal container transportation community, and IICL, a Washington-based trade association for the marine container leasing and chassis provider industry, Blust has been on many calls about the coronavirus pandemic over the past several weeks.

“There are a number of group calls that are going on within the industry and public-private approaches that have been quite informative and helpful, and people are really utilizing those to make a difference. They really have been extremely useful and productive,” he said.

Blust provided as an example a call with the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency during which a first responder said his organization was not on a priority list for face masks.

“This was early on, like March 4. He raised the issue and one of the parties on the phone was from Health and Human Services and says thanks, they’ve got it noted. The next day FEMA had a conference call with the NBEOC, the National Business Emergency Operations Center. The HHS official was speaking and she said, ‘We’ve added first responders to the priority list for the face masks,’” Blust said. “It wasn’t just a nod, ‘Yeah, you need them.’ It was an immediate action.

“It was gratifying to see something like that carried through and that people responded immediately to it to make sure that those individuals stayed safe as well. It’s people working together to try and keep us as safe as possible,” he said. 

Blust has seen this banding together before, namely after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while he was chairman of the FMC.

“Some of the things I saw were really heartwarming,” he said, giving Mississippi River pilots as an example. “I used to listen in on their calls. They would have daily phone calls to walk through getting ships in and out of the ports after they had lost all the navigation buoys. They would work to get ships that were in trouble moving. There was a cruise ship stuck in New Orleans that needed fresh water. One person identified a possible source of fresh water in a barge and they were able to get it moved down, get it on the ship and get the ship moving, rather than having all the people stranded there.”

Blust has been heartened to see people come together now to fight the spread of COVID-19. “Priorities have changed,” he said.

“You’re seeing today people who are willing to dedicate themselves to helping other people. That seems to be a common thread all of the way through any of these issues that arise — people working together to find ways to minimize the impact for the greater good,” he said. 

There are containers on the horizon.

“Things are starting to pick up again in Asia. The containers are moving again out of the container depots so there’s a demand over there. Manufacturing of containers has resumed. I don’t know if it’s back to normal, but it has resumed. It is starting to come back on that side and ships are loading,” Blust said.

“People are starting to look a little farther ahead now,” he said. “Of course the big question is, as the cargo starts to move again, will the virus have moved on to make room for the relief to come in after?. We don’t know what the virus is thinking, so it’s really hard to tell. That level of uncertainty is something everybody’s trying to get a little more clarity on so they can see a path to more normalcy.”

It is a certainty that as manufacturing ramps up in China, exports will pick up again.

“Now you’ve got the issues of when will the Western countries — U.S. and Europe — be ready to receive the cargo,” Blust said. “The ports at one point were extremely full with the equipment from prior voyages being returned to the ports after they were used to move the cargo to their destinations. Apparently some of the ocean carriers have come in and swept empties off the marine terminals and opened up some room so that the loaded ships coming in from Asia and other places will have room to actually work.”

Reducing the effects of supply chain disruption again depends on people dedicated to the cause, according to Blust.

“The chassis folks are working with the motor carriers and the ocean carriers to try and minimize the impact of this disruption, and the leasing companies are doing the same thing. It takes a lot of working with partners for all of us to get through this. I think that’s one of the strong suits of the maritime industry. Over the years, over the decades, the maritime industry has faced a lot of challenges and a variety of challenges,” he said.