Port Houston ‘famous’ for COVID-19 response

Agriculture Transportation Coalition (AgTC) Executive Director Peter Friedmann said Roger Guenther “became famous” in mid-March when two Port Houston terminals were temporarily closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

“Port Houston was the first major port in the United States to get hit by COVID and you all were sort of the guinea pig on how does a port respond. You responded in a way that became kind of the model for the rest of the country,” said Friedmann in introducing Guenther, Port Houston’s executive director and a speaker at AgTC’s annual meeting, conducted virtually this week because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Operations at the Barbours Cut and Bayport container terminals were suspended for about 24 hours after the port authority learned an employee who worked at both facilities had contracted the coronavirus.

“We had a little hiccup with some cases early on that, quite frankly, we weren’t ready for, but we were totally transparent in how we dealt with that. We confided and worked with all our brethren ports across the country to make sure we’re all prepared,” Guenther said, adding that the situation “allowed us to expedite and set the standards and protocols and procedures to make sure our employees were safe first and foremost so we could deliver the goods.”

Like its brethren ports, Houston’s volumes were down in April because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Of course our container activity has been impacted somewhat,” Guenther said. “After a strong January and February start, we’re actually up 5% [year-over-year] in our container volume overall through April. That’s after a 12% drop in April over April last year.”

Port Houston handled a total of 221,540 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in April. In the first four months of 2020, it handled 994,627 TEUs.

Like other U.S. ports, Houston also is experiencing more canceled sailings this year.

“We saw very few in February and March. I think we had nine in March and April. Those have ramped up a little bit. We’re going to see eight total in May and seven in June and a couple in July we’ve already been made aware of. That would probably be 26 that we’re looking at in Houston,” Guenther said.

He noted that in March and April, the blanked sailings were primarily trans-Pacific sailings, but the port now is seeing more cancellations on European and Mediterranean trade routes.

“Despite the blanks, the ships that are coming in seem to be full or even more full than normal,” he continued. “The good thing about it is our trade in Houston is very balanced and it remains that way. The equipment availability is very plentiful.”

Guenther said the port got good news a couple of weeks ago when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the Houston shipping channel expansion report. The report, the culmination of a four-year, $10 million study, now goes to Congress for authorization and funding of the channel deepening and widening through the Water Resources Development Act.

“We expect to start that project in 2021 to allow for even larger ships,” Guenther said, pointing out that Port Houston also is “making investments so our terminals continue to be fluid and reliable and have the capacity to meet growing needs.”

Earlier in the day, Ric Campo, chairman of the Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority, said plans were being made for post-pandemic operations.

“We’re in the ninth week of operating in this environment,” Campo said during the commission’s monthly board meeting, held virtually. “We will probably continue this program in terms of how we’re operating today at least into June.”

But a “return-to-work” team has been formed, he said. 

“I’m not sure that’s a good moniker. It ought to be the return-to-normal team. It’s a very large, cross-functional team with 27 members.They’re looking at the best, safest, most productive way for us to open our offices and get back to a more normal process,” Campo said.  

Guenther told the AgTC that Port Houston is in good shape now but once that return to normal takes place, it will be in a great position to help the U.S. economy bounce back.