The US Army Corps of Engineers successfully restored Baltimore’s Fort McHenry Federal Channel to its full operational dimensions earlier this week. This massive effort saw coordination among 56 agencies and the deployment of a global team of specialists. Gregory DL Morris details the significant adjustments made by ports, carriers, and forwarders across the Eastern Seaboard to manage the disruptions caused by the bridge collapse.

Port of Baltimore Returns to full-channel operations after tragic accident 1

Source: Photo courtesy of USACE.

On June 10 the US Army Corps of Engineers restored Baltimore’s Fort McHenry Federal Channel after it was blocked by the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

On June 10 the US Army Corps of Engineers restored Baltimore’s Fort McHenry Federal Channel to its full operational dimensions of 700 ft (213.4 m) wide and 50 ft (15.2 m) deep for commercial maritime transit. It was blocked on March 26 by the fatal collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, closing the port of Baltimore for almost three months. 

Fully restoring the Federal Channel involved the removal of about 50,000 tonnes of bridge wreckage from the Patapsco River. At its highest point, the Unified Command, consisting of six agencies, led the response efforts among about 56 federal, state, and local agencies, represented by 1,587 individual responders. Additionally, about 500 specialists from around the world operated a fleet of 18 barges, 22 tugboats, 13 floating cranes, 10 excavators, and four survey boats. 

“We had two project shipments bound for Baltimore at the time of the tragedy,” said Henrik Hansen, general manager for the Americas, based in Houston, for AAL Shipping. “Both were loaded in Southeast Asia and routed around the Cape of Good Hope for rail discharge and delivery to the Northeastern USA. One was already on the water and was due to arrive mid-April. We worked with the client and relocated the delivery to Houston. 

“That was the alternative delivery point for the second shipment as well,” Hansen continued, “but as it was about four weeks after the first shipment, we worked with the port authority at Baltimore as well as the Coast Guard and the P&I clubs and were cleared through the newly reopened channel at Baltimore as originally planned.” 

That shipment was due to arrive on June 7 and is believed to be the first project cargo shipment to Baltimore once the bridge collapse was cleared. 

Charlie Reilly, logistics coordinator at heavy haul trucking firm Palco Transportation, noted that with a major breakbulk port going down, the others got jammed including Norfolk, and even as far south as Charleston and Savannah. “We recommended going to smaller northeastern ports, such as Davisville, Rhode Island. We handle project cargo out of there. It’s a major car hub and they have great infrastructure,” he explained. 

Davisville is part of the port of Providence, which has been active in offshore wind development. It, along with Providence proper and New Bedford, Massachusetts is operated by Waterson Terminal Services

Reilly said that in the immediate need after the closing of Baltimore, “if you could find a crane, and a barge, railcar, or flatbed to put the load on, you could divert a load to just about anywhere. Floating cranes were in tight supply – those are hard enough to get during regular times.” One of the biggest challenges noted by ports, carriers, and forwarders was the need to certify drivers and vehicles at different facilities. “The states were mostly empathetic,” said Reilly, “but they still had to go through the process.” 

Michael Bozza, deputy port director for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey said: “It was amazing how quickly the supply chain was able to adapt. The labour force, the International Longshoremen’s Association, did a tremendous job with the diversions from Baltimore. The railroads established daily train service to the Baltimore area.” 

PANYNJ is served by Conrail, which historically was the amalgamation of six northeastern railroads that went bankrupt in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today Conrail is jointly owned by the two US Class 1 eastern roads, Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, and is operated as a switching and terminal carrier. 

“We did get some diverted cargo of all types from Baltimore,” Bozza continued, “container ships mostly but also some out-of-gauge, oversize, and overweight. But that was in our wheelhouse. We handle bulk and breakbulk on a regular basis, including locomotive components and transformers.” 

PANYNJ is a landlord port so everything is handled by its lessee operators and stevedores. The overweight berth is #23 on the Port Newark Channel, it is direct rail served. Ports America handles most of the project cargo stevedoring, Bozza said. 

The port of Virginia handled 18,000 containers diverted from Baltimore, as well as some project cargo and ro-ro. “It was all treated very normally,” said Joe Harris senior press official. “The ro-ro and project cargo was handled at Newport News.” Over the past few years, the port authority has consolidated and expanded its container operations at Norfolk. The Portsmouth terminal is being converted to be a dedicated offshore wind marshalling and operations facility. The latter is already in operation handling monopiles for the big Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind development by Dominion Energy

“We just finished widening the main channel from 1,000 ft (304.8 m) to 1,400 ft (426. 7 m),” said Harris. “That will allow us to handle two-way traffic even with ultra-large crude carriers. We are about to start deepening the channel as well, from 50 ft (15.2 m) to 55 ft (16.8 m). That should be done in about a year,” which is about the same time that the wind hub at Portsmouth should be completed as well. 

For all the calm capability that accommodated diversions from Baltimore, that was all still in the future the morning of the tragedy. “Customers were in a panic,” recalled Craig McGraw, vice president of sales and marketing at highway heavy hauler TransAmerican Trucking & Warehouse. “We work with some shippers and manufacturers, but our main contact is with forwarders.” 

He noted that some cases shippers and forwarders were able to arrange for cargoes planned for Baltimore to be held at manufacturers or in or near ports of embarkation, rather than have them be diverted. While that helped relieve the pressure of the past few months, it means that those deferred shipments will still be working their way through over the next few months. 

Port of Baltimore Returns to full-channel operations after tragic accident 2

Source: Photo courtesy of ProvPort.

ProvPort, which operates several facilities in and near Providence, Rhode Island, served as an important diversion port from Baltimore. The ports are also active as marshalling and manufacturing centres for the burgeoning offshore wind sector.

Baltimore is one of the bases for TransAmerican Trucking, along with northern New Jersey. “We just started a project for Baltimore Gas & Electric,” said McGraw, speaking from Baltimore on that job rather than going to Breakbulk Europe. 

Ambercor Shipping, based in Calgary, Canada was one of the forwarders who had shipments inbound for Baltimore at the time of the collapse. “From Hamburg (Germany) to Baltimore our customer was shipping two cases, each 9.1 m x 5.05 m x 4.1 m and each weighing 66.4 tonnes, as well as a smaller crate 4.3 m x 2. 9m x 2.7m and 38 tonnes,” said Nelli Horvat, operations coordinator. The cargo was all going to be picked up from Baltimore, with the route survey completed for trucking to west central Ohio. 

“Once the collapse happened, the ocean carrier, ACL, advised us and the client that the vessel would have to be rerouted. They gave us two options, New York or Norfolk, we chose New York due to cost and routing. The cost about doubled from higher terminal handling fees to re-permitting and longer route,” she said, but the collaboration was indicative of how parties adapted on the fly. 

While some containers inbound from Europe diverted from Baltimore were offloaded in New York and other ports earlier in the liners’ itinerary, quite a bit of ro-ro cargo was diverted south. About 9,000 automobiles plus 1,000 high and heavy cargoes being imported were re-routed from Baltimore to Brunswick, Georgia on vessels that were already serving that port. High and heavy export volumes out of Brunswick in April were about 500 units greater than the ports monthly average for Fiscal Year 2024 (which ends in June). 

“While sorting the shipments not yet on the water, we had a minimal role, as capacity is stated and managed by Brunswick’s auto processors directly, said Edward Fulford, press official at Georgia Ports Authority (GPA). “Once the reality of the situation kicked in, each processor reviewed their ground capacity, along with volumes previously assigned to Brunswick to determine how many additional units they could accept for volumes not yet on the water, then communicated with OEMs.” 

GPA liaised with the economic development authorities in the Brunswick area to see if there was any offsite capacity the processors could use to increase the general capacity. 

“One of our processors had also reached out to offsite depots they had utilised in the past for overflow as well,” said Fulford. “The knock-on disruption was experienced by OEMs directly in sorting how to get units to markets otherwise not previously catered to by Brunswick. An example of that is trucking them to facilities in Baltimore directly out of our terminal for processing. A high percentage of sailings calling on Baltimore also call Brunswick, so the vessel traffic did not see a significant spike. Traffic on-terminal remained fluid.”