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Waiting on that holiday gift from your online cart? It might be stuck at a seaport

Shipping containers tower over the truck entrance of the Port Houston Barbours Cut Container Terminal in La Porte, Texas.
Shipping containers tower over the truck entrance of the Port Houston Barbours Cut Container Terminal in La Porte, Texas.

A gargantuan crane plucks a rust-colored container from a cargo ship nearly as long as three football fields, and drops it onto a truck with a metallic groan. The maneuver is repeated thousands of times, day and night, here at the busy Port of Houston.

Roger Guenther, executive director of the port, watches through his dark glasses late last month as the truck drives away and disappears into a canyon of steel boxes stacked as tall as a five-story building. Another truck quickly wheels into place awaiting the next steel box packed with the endless merchandise that Americans buy with a click and "Add To Cart."

"When everybody was staying home and they were getting stimulus checks, they started buying," Guenther says. "Since they weren't going on vacation and going to restaurants and buying services, they started buying furniture and bicycles and home improvement goods." His voice trails off.

The evidence of the pandemic-fueled orgy of online purchasing is plain to see here at the Port of Houston — the nation's sixth largest container port, and the first in total waterborne tonnage. All available space is occupied by towers of multicolored containers that are stranded here until trucks can arrive to haul them to, say, a Walmart distribution center. The same thing is happening, to a greater or lesser degree, at every container port in the United States, from Los Angeles to Savannah, Ga. The supply chain infrastructure — hobbled by the pandemic slowdown and a shortage of space and workers — was not prepared for the tsunami of consumer cargo.

Roger Guenther, executive director of the Port of Houston, watches unloading at Bayport Container Terminal in Seabrook, Texas.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
Roger Guenther, executive director of the Port of Houston, watches unloading at Bayport Container Terminal in Seabrook, Texas.

As many as five to 10 ships sitting outside waiting for a berth

"What you're seeing at our port and a lot of other ports across the nation is this surge in imports is really putting a strain on the supply chain," Guenther says. "It's filling up our terminals, filling up all of our extra space. The container terminals are becoming the warehouse for all these goods."

He says their container cargo is up 16% in 2021 over 2020. They've been able to absorb the surge because of recent expansion; nevertheless, the "dwell time" of containers waiting for pickup has doubled from four days to eight days.

In Asia, manufacturers shut down for weeks as the Delta variant raced around the world earlier this year. For instance, orders for Nike sneakers will be months late because of backups due to lockdowns at footwear factories in Vietnam. In Houston, the pileup at the port is exacerbated by a shortage of truck drivers and trucks to haul containers. Without enough trucks to move the steel boxes out of the yard, there's not enough room temporarily to store the containers arriving on cargo ships.

"We've had as many as five to 10 ships sitting outside waiting for a berth," Guenther says.

A crane loads shipping containers onto trucks from a docked container ship.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
A crane loads shipping containers onto trucks from a docked container ship.
Crew members of a docked container ship are seen as the cargo is loaded onto trucks below.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
Crew members of a docked container ship are seen as the cargo is loaded onto trucks below.

The backup at the Houston port is rippling throughout the community

One day in late October, there were two container ships at anchor in the Gulf of Mexico off of Galveston Island waiting to unload because there wasn't enough room at the container terminal. They were waiting for the moment when they could call for a pilot to board the ship and guide them through the murky Houston Ship Channel to the port.

"We do get congested in days like today," says Chad Prejean, second officer with the Houston Pilots Association. "But we're very, very consistent with our traffic here."

The Port of Houston is in better shape than the port complex of Los Angeles-Long Beach, that receives 40% of the shipping containers that enter the United States because they are the shortest distance to Asia. Routinely, more than 100 ships are anchored in San Pedro Bay off the Southern California coastline waiting for a dockside berth. The port authorities have threatened to fine shipping companies if they let their containers "dwell" too long at crowded marine terminals.

Nevertheless, the backup at the Houston port is rippling throughout the vast logistics community on the city's industrial eastside. They're all making more money because shipping costs have soared — in some cases, doubled — but the supply chain logjam has led to humongous headaches, as well.

Randall Morris, chief operating officer for Canal Cartage Company in Houston, says they're having to turn away business because of a shortage of trucks and warehouse space.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
Randall Morris, chief operating officer for Canal Cartage Company in Houston, says they're having to turn away business because of a shortage of trucks and warehouse space.

A worldwide shortage of chassis is another glitch in the supply chain slowdown

"So that is a container," says Randall Morris, chief operating officer of Canal Cartage Company, a short-haul trucking and warehousing firm, as he points to a bright yellow 20-foot-long container. "They're basically like Legos. They sit on top of each other on the ship and they lock 'em down. When we go over to the port, they pick that thing up and put it on our chassis. A chassis is basically a piece of steel with wheels."

Unknown to people outside the byzantine world of supply chain logistics, chassis are essential to the global movement of goods. They're the metal frames on which containers are deposited and which are then hauled by trucks to the retailer. And there is currently a worldwide shortage of chassis—most of which are made in China. That's yet another glitch in the supply chain slowdown.

"We probably have about 250 (chassis) on order," says Morris, "that have been on order for the last year and they just can't produce them fast enough."

A pilots' boat is dwarfed by the inbound container ship that a pilot will guide into the Port of Houston.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
A pilots' boat is dwarfed by the inbound container ship that a pilot will guide into the Port of Houston.

The consumer who hit "add to cart" is not the only one who suffers; supply chain workers do too

The global supply chain can be compared to a professional orchestra playing a challenging symphony.

"And if one piece falls off," Morris continues, "let's say the maestro increases the tempo and no one's ready for it, it all falls apart. And that's essentially what happened."

The consumer who was steamed over not getting their personalized decorative pumpkins in time for Halloween is not the only one who suffers. Josh Maddox, a 32-year-old warehouse supervisor at Canal Cartage, says their warehousing activity got especially busy a couple of weeks ago.

"I didn't see my kids for four days, which is very unusual for me," Maddox says, standing in the warehouse while forklifts whiz past. "I'm home at night. I at least get to see them for a couple hours before I tuck them into bed. But you get home at 7, 8, 9 o'clock at night and that it makes it tough for sure."

BJ Tarver, president and chief operating officer for Gulf Winds International, says 24-hour ports are not the answer to the supply chain conundrum.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
BJ Tarver, president and chief operating officer for Gulf Winds International, says 24-hour ports are not the answer to the supply chain conundrum.

Short-term solutions to the backlog don't have an immediate impact

As the supply chain snarls made national news, last month President Biden asked the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to stay open 24 hours to relieve the backup. The Port of Houston has also tried staying open late and opening on Saturdays, but that's not a silver bullet. BJ Tarver, CEO of Gulf Winds International, a Houston trucking company that works closely with the port, says extended hours are great in theory.

"But I don't know that that's an immediate impact," Tarver says. "You have to have an infrastructure that can support 24 hours a day, right? So drivers have to restructure their lives to be able to support that. Your customers have to be open to receive it and unload it. It's not something that happens immediately."

A longer-term solution is for shipping companies to consider alternate ports, says Margaret Kidd, program director of Supply Chain & Logistics Technology at the University of Houston. The Port of Houston is having its challenges, she says, but they have a lot more space available than ports in Southern California.

Margaret A. Kidd, program director of Supply Chain and Logistics Technology, at the University of Houston, says Asian shippers should consider U.S. Atlantic and Gulf ports.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
Margaret A. Kidd, program director of Supply Chain and Logistics Technology, at the University of Houston, says Asian shippers should consider U.S. Atlantic and Gulf ports.

The backlog at the nation's seaports is going to get worse before it gets better

"What we really need to see is supply chain managers diversifying their ports of entry for imports," she says. "I mean, it's a classic risk mitigation strategy. Texas gulf coast ports, southeast Atlantic ports, Florida ports are all natural choices."

At the Port of Houston, the largest share of its imports also come from Asia, even though the cargo ships have to sail 5,574 additional nautical miles through the Panama Canal to reach the Texas coast. But with California's glutted ports, Houston expects its container traffic to keep growing, along with Americans' insatiable appetite for online goods.

Dispatchers monitor maps of the Houston Ship Channel and take calls from ship captains at the office of the Houston Pilots Association.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
Dispatchers monitor maps of the Houston Ship Channel and take calls from ship captains at the office of the Houston Pilots Association.
An inbound container ship at anchor off the Houston Ship Channel is seen from the bridge of a pilot's boat.
/ Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR
An inbound container ship at anchor off the Houston Ship Channel is seen from the bridge of a pilot's boat.

The supply chain bottleneck at the nation's seaports is going to get worse before it gets better, with retailers expecting a surge of inventory for the Black Friday rush.

Todd Stewart, chairman of Gulf Winds International, made this comparison: "You ever try to drain a swimming pool with a garden hose? It takes awhile."

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