Blackout snarls logistics, border operations

Blackout snarls logistics, border operations

Airlines, railroads and other logistics providers are struggling to return operations to normal one day after a massive blackout plunged parts of the eastern United States and Canada into darkness late Thursday.

Vessel operations in New York harbor were only marginally affected by the blackout, in large part because of light traffic, said Ed Sweeney, vice president of the New Jersey section of the United New York-New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots.

"It was a very quiet evening," Sweeney said. "I spoke with the Coast Guard and they commented how fortunate we were that it was a very quiet evening, traffic-wise."

He said one small container ship, the Ara J, eventually sailed at 1 a.m., seven hours behind schedule. The departure of the Hanjin Barcelona was also delayed several hours, which in turn delayed the inbound arrival of the Horizon Producer, which ended up anchoring outside the harbor and coming in this morning.

According to a Friday morning update from the operations department of a major steamship line, all North American marine terminals are currently in operation, including those in Norfolk, Halifax, Montreal and New York-New Jersey.

The carrier reported that power was lost for two hours on Thursday afternoon at Global Terminals in Bayonne, N.J., and for 10 hours at Howland Hook Container Terminal in Staten Island, N.Y. before being restored at 3 a.m. Friday. Power was also lost for four hours at Port Newark Container Terminal, but was back on at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday. "Everything is back to normal," said a steamship executive.

"We have no issues, no interruptions in New York," said Philipp Rathgeb, vice president for North American ocean freight at DHL Danzas Air and Ocean. "Containers are being received at the port, and on the import side we can pick them up. But we have information that Toronto, Detroit and Cleveland are still without power. Thankfully it is a summer Friday, so hopefully the impact will be minimal, and if they get power over the weekend, they should be caught up quickly by Monday."

Auto makers shut assembly lines

General Motors resorted to manual processing to get some of its trucks across the border, said Kevin Smith, director of trade compliance. While plants in Detroit were closed today, plants outside the blackout region were running short of critical parts.

"We have plants in Kentucky that need parts, and we have suppliers in Canada without power. We've had to be creative," Smith said. He said his office broke out old typewriters to produce invoices and manifests by hand. Then a courier took the paperwork to drivers in Canada who were waiting to cross the bridge.

Delays at border crossings

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection offices in Michigan were operating on emergency power, according to Cherise Miles, a spokeswoman in Chicago. "We didn't miss a beat," Miles said.

Traffic coming into Detroit on the Ambassador bridge has been light because public officials are encouraging people to stay home, said Mickey Blashfield, spokesman for the Ambassador Bridge Co.

He said trucks are being delayed three to four hours going into Canada. Customs offices in Windsor lost data links to Ottawa, so only a couple of lanes were in operation. Canada was giving priority to line-release and critical cargo.

"Traffic coming out of Canada is limited," said Wayne Burl, chief executive of A.N. Deringer, a forwarder in St. Albans, Vt. "There's no electricity on the Ontario side, so the fuel pumps aren't working," so truckers aren't able to cross.

Tom Nightingale, a spokesman for motor carrier Schneider National in Green Bay, Wisc., said that trucks waited up to three hours to cross the Canadian border Thursday night. Friday morning, there was a 45-minute delay for trucks traveling between Windsor and Detroit.

The province of Ontario declared a state of emergency after the blackout and encouraged non-essential personnel to stay home.

Most bridges remained open overnight, operating on emergency generators. The tunnel between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, closed Thursday night, but re-opened Friday morning.

In New York, the Peace Bridge remained open all night. The bridge at Lewiston, N.Y., was briefly closed this morning for generator maintenance.

The Ontario government will allow only critical packages, such as medical supplies, to cross the border, said Norman Black, a spokesman for United Parcel Service.

UPS is holding non-critical packages at its own facilities and are waiting for word from officials in Ontario to restart normal operations. The parcel carrier was having difficulty making pick-ups, and sorting centers in the affected regions were unable to operate during the outage.

Larry Hahn, director of regulatory affairs for Canada for Livingston International, an Ottawa Customs clearance and advisory firm, said Friday morning that border operations were returning to normal.

"The restriction we do have is on pre-arrival processing. Customs is asking us to do that in a paper mode rather than electronic as a cautionary measure in case the power should go out."

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday halted take-offs at six airports that lacked power to operate security equipment. The agency later lifted the ban at Newark, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports in the New York area and in Cleveland. Flights were also cleared to resume in Toronto and Ottawa.

United Airlines, the world's second-largest carrier and a major cargo operator, said that flights likely would not return to a normal schedule until Saturday. Crowded summer flights and the recent cutbacks in flights are hampering those efforts, a spokesman said.

FedEx Corp., based in Memphis, was assessing the situation and reviewing contingency plans, a spokesman said. The integrator is also is using generators wherever possible.

Detroit still an issue for railroads

Rail carrier Norfolk Southern issued a notice of force majeure at 4 p.m. Thursday for customers with committed service agreements. The railroad operates a major railhead for UPS outside New York City in Croxton, N.J., but Susan Bland, a spokeswoman for the Norfolk, Va.-based carrier, said that operations there were unaffected by the power outage.

In Detroit, NS was forced to evacuate personnel at its Oakwood yard after a fire broke out in an oil storage tank around 12:30 a.m. local time. Power had not been restored to Detroit as of Friday morning.

Bland said NS was also experiencing problems in its Conrail shared asset operations in Detroit and New Jersey, and in Ohio, Indiana, and terminals in Dearborn, Mich., Pittsburgh and Harrisburg in Pennsylvania. As of late Friday morning, power had been restored to terminals in Bellevue and Toledo, Ohio; Buffalo, Cleveland and the New York City region.

CSX, the other major eastern railroad, said its New Jersey intermodal terminals were back on line as of 2 a.m. Friday. "North Bergen, Little Ferry and Kearny were down after the blackout, but they are now up and going," said spokesman Dan Murphy.

Detroit remained the most troublesome region for CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla. "There continue to be some power problems in Detroit. The auto manufacturing plants are shut down, since they can't get parts because the truckers can't get gas," Murphy said.

Trains operating into and out of Chicago were experiencing delays of up to six hours, but Murphy described interchange operations with western railroads there as "fluid."

- reported by Ann Saccamano and R.G. Edmonson in Washington, and Peter Tirschwell and Stuart Chirls in Newark.