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East and West Coast ports continue to recover from the pandemic-induced slowdowns this past spring, driven by a surge in imports.

The South Carolina Ports Authority (SC Ports) cited positive cargo trends for August this week, saying the port handled 208,837 twent-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) during the month—up 18% over July’s volume and up 33% since June. Year-over-year volume was down 10%. 

“Our August volumes surpassed expectations, reflecting the best year-over-year month since the pandemic began impacting global supply chains in March,” SC Ports President and CEO Jim Newsome said in a statement Monday. “We are encouraged by a steady rebound in containers, vehicles, and inland port rail moves.”

August also marked the second highest month ever for imports to the Port of Charleston, driven by rising consumer demand, officials said.

Port and local investments are expected to fuel growth down the road, as well. Officials pointed to Walmart’s investment in a 3 million square-foot distribution center (DC) in Dorchester County, S.C., that is expected to eventually boost port volumes by 5%. Walmart is slated to break ground on the facility in March. The port said Wednesday it received a $21.7 billion grant from the federal government that will help with the development of the project. The grant will be used to fund both on-site and off-site improvements to the port’s Ridgeville Commerce Park, where the Walmart DC and other future tenants will be located. The funding is part of the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant program.

A series of harbor deepening projects are allowing the port to handle larger container ships, also boosting growth. SC Ports is preparing to welcome the largest ship to ever visit the East Coast and the Port of Charleston—the 15,072-TEU CMA CGM Brazil—on September 20.

The CMA CGM Brazil arrived this week at the Port of Virginia, where loaded imports saw a third consecutive monthly gain in August and overall cargo volume through the port was up 12% compared to July. Year-over-year volume was down 4%.

“We are seeing some green shoots and trending in the right direction and we must temper that with the fact that the trade environment is very fluid and unpredictable,” John F. Reinhart, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority, said in a statement Monday. “This month-on-month growth should continue through September, but it is hard to predict what volumes will look like in late fall. What is important is that there are fewer blank sailings, we have new services coming online and some extra loaders (vessels) to handle the increasing cargo will be announced. The number of loaded import containers is also growing, and these are all good signs.”

The monthly growth caused officials to add operating time at the port, moving its opening times from 7 a.m. to 6 a.m. at Norfolk International Terminals and Virginia International Gateway; during the height of the pandemic, the port had reduced operating times by two hours—opening at 7 a.m. instead of 5 a.m.—as a cost-saving measure, officials said.

Virginia’s growing barge operations signaled improvement in August as well, setting a new monthly volume peak of 6,076 containers, an increase of more than 17% over July, officials said.

On the West Coast, officials at the Port of Los Angeles reported the first monthly cargo increase in a year, citing a 12% gain in August that was driven by imports. Overall monthly volumes were the strongest ever, but volume is still down 11.7% year-to-date. 

“In May we saw our lowest container volumes in more than a decade,” Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said in a statement Tuesday. “Since then, there has been a significant replenishment of warehouse inventories. Coupled with retailers planning for consumer holiday spending, it has created a surge of imports.”

August loaded imports increased 18% to 516,286 TEUs compared to the previous year. Loaded exports decreased 10.2% to 131,429 TEUs. Empty containers increased 13.3% to 314,118 TEUs.

 

 

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