Will the backlog at the Port of Savannah be a holiday Scrooge?

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The backlog of ships and cargo in the Port of Savannah remains high due to a shortage of truck drivers, equipment and warehouse workers.

Lee Beckman, manager of governmental affairs for the Georgia Ports Authority, painted a dim picture of the situation at the major U.S. port in coastal Georgia for lawmakers on Tuesday. 

About 83,000 shipping containers are stacked across the facility waiting to be shipped off of Georgia’s coast or hauled inland by truckers. That figure is 22,000 higher than the port’s preferred maximum, Beckman said.

Two weeks ago, 27 cargo ships anchored in the water, waiting for their turn to come ashore — a number that has slowly declined to now 18. 

Georgia Ports Authority officials have been scrambling to empty the packed shipyard with only minimal success as the backlog remains high. 

The early supply issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — where toilet paper could not be found at local grocery stores for miles — has transformed into an issue of demand: sales are so high there are not enough workers to keep goods moving.

We’ve seen a massive increase in cargo volumes,” Beckman said. “But with that came a massive increase in dwell time on our facilities. Boxes sat on our facilities longer than we had previously planned for or experienced.”

Warehouse workers can’t unload boxes quick enough, he said, and drivers can’t get loads out of the port fast enough — a problem that grows exponentially, compounding the massive backlog.

The problem doesn’t stem from just one root cause, but many, explained Tim Brown, managing director of the Supply Chain and Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech.

“Georgia truly is a supply chain state,” he said.

“In terms of the disruptions, a lot of people ask me, ‘What’s the cause?’ It’s a little bit of everything,” Brown told lawmakers. “So there’s no one solution; there’s no one problem.”

Brown expects Georgians should soon find no problem picking up “simple goods” — grocery and home improvement items that consist of one part. 

But more complex items that rely on pieces from dozens of different countries — such as car parts or the newest video game console — could be affected for a while to come.

In a scrambled effort to get shipping containers out of Savannah, the Georgia Ports Authority expanded the hours in which truck drivers can pick up their loads. Now, gates are often open until 11 p.m., Beckman said.

But changes made by the ports can only go so far. A nationwide truck driver shortage is propelling much of the problem.

Ed Crowell, the president and CEO of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association, said that the shortage of truck drivers that haul freight loads nationwide has hit about 80,000 — a number, he said, “that is only going to grow.”

Midway Democrat State Rep. Al Williams asked pointedly: When will this problem be resolved?

You’re running out of storage space, you’ve got 18 ships in the harbor,” he said. “What was the light at the end of the tunnel? Because the supply chain jam now is a nightmare.”

The passage of the Biden administration’s massive $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill last week may offer some relief. 

While most of the infrastructure projects outlined in the plan will take years to complete, the White House is working to speed up fund distribution of $17 million for port projects in an effort to reduce nationwide backlog.

One such project is multiple “pop-up” container yards to alleviate congestion at the Port of Savannah.

According to the White House, the plan would allow the Georgia Port Authority to redirect more than $8 million to convert existing inland facilities into five container yards in both Georgia and North Carolina.

The Port of Savannah will transport containers via rail and truck inland, closer to their final destination, for storage freeing up space at the port.

The bill also includes more than $240 million in grant funding made available within the next 45 days to modernize ports and marine highways.

This story comes to The Georgia Sun through a reporting partnership with GA Today, a non-profit newsroom focused on reporting in Georgia.