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How is the shutdown at Baltimore's port affecting other East Coast ports?


Crews working around the clock have managed to open a small temporary channel at the Port of Baltimore, and they're also working to establish a second, larger one. President Biden is due to visit the port on Friday to review the recovery effort. It could take months to clear debris from the accident last week, when a cargo ship rammed the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing it to collapse. The port handles more cars and light trucks than any other in the United States, and much of it remains off-limits, so we were wondering how this could affect other ports on the East Coast. So we called Bethann Rooney, port director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

BETHANN ROONEY: The immediate thought that went into my head was how much of that cargo is going to be coming our way, and what can we do to assist?

MARTIN: What role will you play now?

ROONEY: So what we're doing now is we're helping with the cargo, both automobiles and containers, that were already on the oceans and destined to the Port of Baltimore. So in the case of the containerized cargo, there are 10 services - call them bus routes - that call the Port of Baltimore. All 10 of them also call the Port of New York and New Jersey. The same ships that come to us later go to Baltimore in eight of those 10 times. So for those eight services that typically call us first and then Baltimore, that cargo is now being discharged from the ship in the Port of New York and New Jersey. And then we've been working, one, to provide credentials to Baltimore-based truck drivers so that they can now come to our facilities in order to pick up that cargo and get it back to its intended customers, and number two, we and the ocean carriers and the terminal operators have been working with two Class 1 railroads in order to bring the containers that would stay in the immediate Baltimore area back to Baltimore by train.

MARTIN: Let's just be clear that the first, I think, concern here is the loss of life and caring for the people who lost their loved ones. But there's still all this cargo. What happens to that?

ROONEY: There's approximately 4,000 tons of deck of the bridge that needs to be taken off of the ship. There's hazardous cargo on board the ship that needs to be contained so that there is no further damage. Once the ship is able to be moved, it will be brought to an area where it will go into what is essentially lay-up status. The terminal will attempt to remove the cargo, and then that cargo will have to be rerouted to another port in order for it to be exported to its original destination.

MARTIN: And do you have the capacity for all this?

ROONEY: We do have the capacity. So at the height of the pandemic, we were handling 25 to 28% more cargo than we're handling right now. So we have more than enough capacity. What is important is that that cargo remains fluid. So if for some reason that cargo does not leave our terminals in a timely manner, then we could expect to see efficiency issues. And that's obviously not something that anybody wants to see. So as a result, we're working closely with all parties to make sure that the cargo can be picked up in a timely manner. Our terminal operators have added additional hours of service on weekdays, and our terminals that are handling this cargo will be open on Saturday.

MARTIN: How much disruption do you think that there is actually going to be?

ROONEY: I don't actually think that there will be much disruption at all. The cargo that was going into Baltimore is, for the most part, going to be shared between New York, New Jersey and Norfolk, with some of it going up to Davisville, R.I., and Philadelphia, perhaps to Wilmington. So what would typically happen is that we take about 60 to 65% of the ships' capacity off at our terminals here. Now we're going to take, you know, 70 to 75% of the ships' capacity off here. And we will have the ability to already be delivering that cargo out, whether it's by truck or by rail, before the ship would normally have even gotten to Baltimore. So in some instances, cargo owners may actually get their cargo a day or two earlier than they would have.

MARTIN: Is there anything about this situation that is still keeping you up at night?

ROONEY: It certainly brings to the forefront the very issues that ports around the country were concerned about in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. You know, we were looking at risks to bridges and bridge infrastructure from a vessel that could be, you know, used as a weapon as opposed to this, which is just a tragic accident. I think for ports around the country, everybody is taking another look at the infrastructure surrounding the bridge and the bridge pylons.

MARTIN: That's Bethann Rooney. She's the port director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Bethann Rooney, thank you so much for taking the time.

ROONEY: Thank you again for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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