Charleston Congestion Getting Worse Not Better

Last fall, the Port of Savannah was hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons; this January, it’s Charleston that’s setting unwanted congestion records. On January 24, 19 vessels were anchored outside Charleston waiting to unload. A worsening situation, as officials from the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA), had to admit. They’d been optimistic that the backlog would clear after the holiday season, but it has only gotten worse.

Charleston Congestion

Unclaimed containers at the terminal

On January 21, more than 7,000 containers had been sitting at the port’s marine terminals for more than 15 days, up 40% from the previous month, according to the SCPA. “It’s unacceptable, that’s just too many,” says SCPA CEO Jim Newsome. According to the SCPA, this is the key factor contributing to the congestion outside the port. “We don’t have anywhere to move them. We can’t move them off to a site somewhere and hide them for a couple of weeks,” Jim Newsome adds. “We need people to take delivery of the cargo they ordered.” The long-dwelling container backlog forced the SCPA to use only three cranes instead of five on several occasions in the past few weeks. That naturally slows down the unloading of vessels, which adds to the numbers waiting offshore.

Charleston AIS Snapshot 25 Jan

Much longer dwelling times

Import containers have been dwelling in the Charleston terminals for an average of 11 days in January, up from six days during the previous month. In all, there are some 25,000 containers waiting to be picked up, a quarter more than in December 2021. Although the backlog is partly due to the holidays when fewer trucks were picking up containers, several other factors have exacerbated the situation in January:

  • Labor shortages: In the U.S., there is a general shortage of truck drivers. According to this week’s Economist, new truck drivers in Portland, Oregon, are being offered a $30,000 sign-on bonus. Similar labor shortages are impacting the entire supply chain. The U.S. has about 3 million fewer workers now than on the eve of the pandemic, a 2% contraction in the labor force that has mainly impacted unskilled occupations.
  • Omicron impact: Although Jim Newsome plays down the role of the Omicron variant in the Charleston congestion, he does acknowledge it has disrupted the supply chain in other ways. Warehouses and trucking operators already facing labor shortages have seen them become worse through infected employees being quarantined. But he reiterated that “the biggest factor right now is too many imports on our terminal and customers not picking them up.”
  • Winter storm: The winter storm that recently hit the Mid-Atlantic and Carolinas also disrupted Charleston’s port operations. Heavy ice on the evening of January 21 caused the backlog to grow over the weekend and SCPA’s COO Barbara Melvin is quoted as saying that ships couldn’t be worked during most of the day on January 24 because of strong winds.

Six weeks needed to clear congestion

The SCPA thinks it will take up to six weeks to clear the current congestion, a prediction that is unfortunately dependent on some factors beyond the authority’s control. Will customers start picking up their goods and thus ease the import container backlog at Charleston’s Wando Welch Terminal? Will the bad winter weather return? According to Jim Newsome, the Port of Savannah’s implementation of pop-up storage yards across Georgia to deal with its congestion problem currently isn’t an option in South Carolina. But the Port of Charleston does intend to rent a commercial barge to transport long-dwelling containers to the underutilized Hugh K. Leatherman (HLK) and North Charleston terminals to make space available at Wando Welch. Terminal utilization at Wando Welch is 114% while HLK and North Charleston are around 50-60% yet shifting thousands of containers on just one commercial barge is unlikely to ease the situation in the short term. If January’s backward trend continues, congestion at Charleston could well take more than six weeks to clear.