East Coast auto ports plan for stormy future

East Coast auto ports plan for stormy future

- in Automotive
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The Port of Charleston, S.C., is the primary load center for BMW exports.

One of the Southeast region’s biggest attractions for automakers is its large ports that facilitate trade in finished vehicles and components for domestic assembly plants.

But one big vulnerability is that those ports lie right in the target zone for Atlantic hurricanes. And as the frequency and intensity of storms increase because of warming oceans, automakers and transport providers are taking extra precautions to ensure continuity of operations and prevent damage to finished vehicles.

The only auto terminal directly affected last week by Hurricane Florence was at the Port of Charleston, S.C., the primary load center for BMW exports and parts arriving from Germany for its plant in Spartanburg, S.C. All vehicles on the dock were loaded last week on two roll-on/roll-off vessels that departed ahead of the storm for Europe and China.

Getting freight off the docks before bad weather arrives is a top priority for port authorities, terminal operators and manufacturers alike.

“Preparation and coordination with tenants on what to do with the cargo and closely following your hurricane plan and Coast Guard directives days ahead” of landfall are very important, said Nancy Rubin, spokeswoman for the Jacksonville Port Authority in Florida, as are meeting with customers and law enforcement about how to bounce back after the storm.

Logistics experts say port operators and users have learned from experience how to minimize damage and disruption.

Automakers, for their part, hold vehicles at the plant if a storm is headed their way.

Railroads divert trains to yards outside the hurricane zone to protect their equipment and cargo. If vehicles are sitting on the dock, and no vessel is scheduled to arrive in time, logistics service providers try to induce an ocean carrier in the vicinity to make an unscheduled stop and clear out the inventory, said William Kerrigan, vice president of auto logistics at terminal operator SSA Marine, of Seattle.

Vehicles are loaded onto a carrier at Jacksonville, Fla.’s JaxPort. Experts say ports have learned from experience how to minimize hurricane damage and disruption.

Ports also are investing in infrastructure to make themselves more resilient. The Port of New York and New Jersey experienced significant damage from unprecedented flooding six years ago during Superstorm Sandy. After initially focusing on repairs so facilities could be reopened, the port authority began planning and undertaking projects to protect assets from future natural disasters.

In 2013, the agency, which also manages four airports, a rail transit system, tunnels and other assets, created a dedicated Storm Mitigation and Resilience Office to make sure facilities are rebuilt to reflect new and evolving expectations of severe weather and climate change.

Among the Sandy-related investments is a project to restore the roadway and shoreline at the BMW auto processing and shipping facility in Port Jersey.

Jacksonville’s JaxPort and the Port of Brunswick, in Georgia, are among the largest U.S. ports in terms of finished-vehicle volume. JaxPort handled 693,248 vehicles in fiscal year 2017, up 13 percent in five years. Brunswick handled 607,000 vehicles last year.

BMWs are unloaded from a train at the Port of Charleston, S.C.

Population and production growth from foreign transplants such as Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Kia and Mercedes are driving both ports’ growth, according to experts.

The proximity of large auto terminals with good rail connections was a factor in foreign brands’ site selection and “very important for the profitability and long-term viability of the Southeast corridor,” said Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Markit’s automotive advisory service.

Meanwhile, automakers are importing more vehicles as population centers in the region, such as Atlanta, grow.

Florida, with 21 million residents, has supplanted New York as the third most populous state.

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