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Baltimore shipping channel fully reopens after massive cleanup

1 week ago 27

After a colossal cleanup effort, federal and state authorities fully reopened the main shipping channel to the Port of Baltimore on Monday, transforming a site of ferocious destruction into a symbol of resilience after an errant container ship downed the Francis Scott Key Bridge in March and killed six workers.

Authorities restored the federal channel to its original 700-foot width and 50-foot depth, providing a moment of hope after a painful period in Baltimore.

“Yet again, Baltimore was counted down and out,” Mayor Brandon Scott (D) said in an interview. “And yet again, Baltimore proved the world wrong.”

Disruptions from the March 26 bridge collapse have cost the Baltimore region’s economy about $1.2 billion, said Anirban Basu, an economist with Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore-based consulting firm. That takes into account a sharp drop in port activity immediately after the disaster and more moderate losses as smaller channels kept a reduced quantity of goods flowing — as well as all the spending on clearing the channel itself.

It wasn’t easy getting here. Multiple layers of government and the private sector pulled off the major cleanup operation and prevented a prolonged supply-chain nightmare.

“When we work together, we can actually get big things done,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) said in an interview Friday, adding that some early estimates said fully restoring the channel could take six months to a year. It ended up being 11 weeks.

As he stood grief-stricken in the early hours after the disaster, embracing Moore at Fort Armistead Park, Scott didn’t imagine it could be reopened this quickly.

He credited a partnership that included Moore, President Biden, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and officials from federal, state, county and city governments.

In contrast with earlier disasters, such as when Ray Nagin, then the mayor of New Orleans, had to go “begging the federal government for help” after Hurricane Katrina, there was no disconnect after the bridge went down, Scott said.

“When you’re talking about political animals, so to speak, folks get very territorial. Folks get very focused on how this could impact them,” Scott said. But in this case, no one went out grandstanding for themselves, he said. “I would dare to say that’s probably the first time in American history that didn’t happen.”

Instead, the Army Corps tapped an existing agreement with the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, which specializes in responding to marine emergencies, to bring in massive barges, cranes and teams of expert contractors to remove 100 million pounds of bridge wreckage from the Patapsco.

After surveying treacherous underwater conditions, crews began removing bridge wreckage on March 30. Along with the Coast Guard, specialized Maryland divers and other salvage crews ticked through a rapid-fire series of milestones. They opened temporary or limited channels for shallow-draft vessels and then larger ones; set a barrage of controlled explosions to free the container ship Dali from the bridge it had destroyed, allowing a partial reopening of the channel for vast ships; and, on June 4, lifted the last large steel section of the bridge from the water. The state hopes to rebuild the bridge by 2028.

Overall economic effects have been less serious than originally feared, said Daraius Irani, chief economist for the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. The announcement that the full channel would be reopened quickly provided a “light at the end of the tunnel” for many businesses, he said. But Irani said transportation problems stemming from the loss of the bridge will continue to cause logistical disruptions.

Maryland officials said that as of early June, a worker retention program run by the state has saved more than 3,000 jobs through grants to businesses that pledge not to lay off workers for two months. But they said the full employment effects of the disaster are still being determined.

The latest available Maryland jobs report, for April, showed a decline of 1,000 jobs in the transportation, warehousing and utilities sector, which is how many jobs at the port are classified. Some of those losses might have been subsequently reversed by the retention program, state officials said. Overall, Maryland added 7,800 jobs that month.

Biden had told administration officials to pull “every lever we can” to speed the reopening and was briefed by senior Army Corps and Coast Guard leaders on the efforts, said Natalie Quillian, White House deputy chief of staff.

Quillian, who has led coordination for the White House after the bridge collapse, said the reopening of the full channel “shows just the strength and the power of what we can get done at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level when we pull all of our resources together and do it well.”

The effects of the reopening will be felt across the nation’s economy and far beyond U.S. borders.

It will allow companies to return fully to moving massive shiploads of cars, tractors, containers and bulk materials — such as coal — through Baltimore as they had done before the Dali lost power and veered off course.

Many large ships had already begun to return in the days since authorities moved the Dali to port on May 20, allowing them to open a limited, 400-foot-wide channel to the full 50-foot depth.

Maryland port officials said Monday’s full reopening — originally scheduled for the end of May but delayed by the complexities of cutting and pulling out the final pieces of the bridge — will accelerate the port’s recovery.

Authorities said the fully operational channel again allows two-way traffic and sheds additional safety measures put in place when it was narrower than normal. Crews will still survey and remove steel wreckage “at and below the 50-foot mud-line … to ensure future dredging operations are not impacted,” recovery officials said in a statement.

“Baltimore is back,” said Jonathan Daniels, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. “Any cargo, any movement, any schedule — our terminal operators are in place to be able to welcome those vessels. The labor is available. The port is fully open for commerce as it was before the incident.”

But it will take time for businesses to return to Baltimore, logistics experts said — and some might never do so.

Port boosters argue that all the reasons the port was attractive before the Dali disaster still hold true, such as the vastness of the local market it serves. They note that contents of 70 percent of all containers coming into the port are consumed within 70 miles, and that the port serves as a gateway to the Upper Midwest and elsewhere.

But Daniels also acknowledged the pressure from competitors.

“You don’t want a temporary change to become a long-term determination that another gateway is better,” Daniels said. He estimated full recovery will come in 2025.

Firms such as Mitsubishi Motors North America offer hope.

Baltimore is a key portal for Mitsubishi cars made in Japan and Thailand. After the Dali crash, Mitsubishi had to divert some of its cars to the port in Wilmington, Del., then truck them to company facilities at Baltimore’s port, where accessories like floor mats and stripes are added.

Mitsubishi started getting ships back to its regular facility on May 25. “We expect to pick up operations essentially right where we left off,” said Jeremy Barnes, a company spokesman.

Jobs loading and offloading cargo are up from the weeks after the Dali crash but still lagging.

Scott Cowan, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen’s Association in the Port of Baltimore, said at its worst point, between 1,900 and 2,000 of his union’s 2,400 members were out of work.

“We’re definitely over 50 percent of the workforce back to work, so it’s going in the right direction,” Cowan said.

The uptick in activity has already added to congestion problems.

Dan Ryan, vice president of government and public affairs at Mazda, said it was always “our intent and our hope” to stay at the port, as long as the channel could reopen quickly. Still, the absence of the Key Bridge has caused delays getting trucks to the port and back out to dealers, he said.

Now, with the channel reopened but the bridge gone, it’s unclear just how much renewed sea traffic will exacerbate traffic on the roads.

“That’s definitely an open question for us,” Ryan said.

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