With Hurricane Florence heading straight for the Carolinas as of Thursday, the ports of Savannah and Virginia have reduced exposure, although Charleston and Wilmington, North Carolina, are still in the crosshairs, albeit to a lesser degree than earlier this week.
Truckload spot rates have surged into the Carolinas, a typical pre-storm reaction. But since there are a higher number of distribution centers near Atlanta, a severe jolt to freight rates similar to Hurricane Harvey is unlikely. Rates are more likely to return back to normal shortly after the weather clears.
The tentative plan in Charleston is for the container, breakbulk, and roll-on, roll-off terminals to be closed through Saturday, opening either on Sunday or Monday. The final ship left the Columbus Street terminal with 2,000 BMW vehicles today because the automaker didn’t want to leave them on the pier.
Ultimately the choice on reopening the harbor comes from the US Coast Guard, while port officials decide on terminal operations.
“What we do typically is secure our cranes and lift machines. One of the biggest risks is the wireless infrastructure used to communicate with the lift machines. That can really get damaged in a wind event,” said South Carolina Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome on CNBC.
In Wilmington, terminals will be shut down for the rest of the week and could reopen on Monday. Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation have closed terminals in Charleston until further notice, shutting down service to inland ports Greer and Dillon, South Carolina.
The Port of Virginia closed on Wednesday but reopened on Thursday and waived all reservation hours. Norfolk International Terminals and Virginia International Gateway will be closed on Friday, but rail to Front Royal and barge service to Richmond will continue. The Virginia Port Authority plans to reopen on Saturday without reservations and open with reservations on Sunday.
NS and CSX, which had shut down terminals in Norfolk, reopened their gates with normal operating hours. The Garden City Terminal in Savannah is also operating normally and the US Coast Guard assigned a low-threat condition for the area.
From an intermodal perspective, a disruption in Savannah or Norfolk would be worse on a regional basis than in Charleston and Wilmington. Rail in those Georgia and Virginia feeds the Midwest more often than North or South Carolina.
FMCSA suspends HOS regulations
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) suspended hours-of-service (HOS) regulations for drivers providing emergency relief assistance. The announcement applies mainly to US truckload and less-than-truckload carriers since drayage in Charleston and Wilmington is effectively shut down.
Spot market data from DAT Solutions show the typical pre-storm spike is in full effect. The 30-day average is $2.62 per mile on dry-van freight from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee to the Carolinas.
In the last seven days, however, dry-van rates jumped to $2.72, and on Sept. 12 it spiked at $3.03. The reefer the rate was up 16 percent and in flatbed 13 percent on Sept. 12 versus the seven-day average.
A direct hit on Atlanta would be far worse than Greenville, South Carolina. There are far more distribution centers near Atlanta than the interior of South Carolina. Much of the freight in South Carolina is industrial or agricultural rather than retail.
If Florence damaged Atlanta, then the aftermath would be closer to Hurricane Harvey when truckers received as much as $10,000 to go into the disaster zone. But landfall in the Carolinas would track closer to Irma, in which pre-hurricane rates quickly dissipated after conditions returned to normal.
“I think Florence will be a lot like Irma. Certainly any hurricane is a tragedy for those affected. It would only have a bigger impact on freight flows if the hurricane took out Charlotte or Norfolk,” said Mark Montague, DAT industry analyst.
As the hurricane gets closer, the entire transportation system seems to be prepared and shippers ready to recover as soon as possible once the weather returns to normal.