Shipping delays and transportation headaches could persist for weeks, but vessel operations have resumed on at least a limited scale at all of the state’s seaports hit by Hurricane Harvey and its devastating floods.
“It’s been a brilliant job by the port and everyone else,” said Marcia Faschingbauer, president and CEO of Houston trucking company Excargo Services. “Our folks just jumped in and everyone grabbed an oar.”
The US Coast Guard on Tuesday reopened the Sabine-Neches Waterway at the ports of Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange to restricted vessel traffic. Drafts will be limited to 30 feet instead of the normal 40 feet until channels can be inspected and cleared of shoaling or other obstructions.
Officials offered no estimate of when deeper-draft vessels would be allowed, saying it will depend on the amount and severity of shoaling detected by surveys. The ports suffered no flood damage. “We’ve just been waiting for the channel to reopen,” said Anthony Theriot, trade development director at the Port of Port Arthur.
The channels at Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange, which were hit when the storm made its third and final landfall in the state’s southeast corner, were the last to be reopened after the storm.
Corpus Christi, the first port affected by the storm, was reopened last week. Houston, Freeport, and Galveston are operating with vessel restrictions that are gradually being eased. Dredges were busy at Freeport, where the Coast Guard expanded maximum drafts to 38 feet from an earlier 33 feet, and at Galveston, where 37-foot drafts were allowed in the port.
At Houston, where container terminals reopened Thursday and handled ships through the Labor Day weekend, draft limits were 40 feet in the ship channel’s lower areas, scaling down to 38 feet and 32 feet farther up the channel. The deeper areas include container terminals and most refinery docks.
A section at the Houston Ship Channel’s upper end, including the port’s Turning Basin breakbulk docks, remained closed while salvage workers remove a sunken drydock from the channel. It’s unclear how long that will take.
Although Houston container terminals were back in full operation, shippers and inland transportation providers will require time to catch up. Faschingbauer said that although she was thrilled with the port’s quick reopening, she said truckers are still trying to connect with some customers to plan freight movements.
Brian Fielkow, CEO at Jetco Delivery, said that when terminals reopened, booking numbers needed to be updated, and some cargo wasn’t released or “was supposed to be here and never got here. It’s going to take a lot longer to figure out where all the cargo is.”
Although most warehouses and other cargo facilities avoided flood damage, there were reports of damage to chassis, although not on the scale of what the Port of New York and New Jersey experienced during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. CIMC Intermodal Equipment said it would send up to 600 new 40-foot gooseneck chassis area to the Houston area this week to replace units damaged by flooding.
Disruptions in train service have slowed the comeback of chemical plants, including producers of synthetic resins that are exported in containers. IHS Markit Chemicals said more than half of US polyethylene production was knocked offline.
Union Pacific, BNSF, and Kansas City Southern railroads report progress in restoring service and say anticipated weather conditions this week are conducive to repairs. Tracks are rapidly being reopened to the north and west of flooded areas. Track closures continue farther east in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area.
Railroads are using drones and helicopters to inspect tracks left inaccessible by flooding, and said they have been repairing damaged bridges and washed-out roadbeds.
Union Pacific said its primary focus Tuesday was on reopening lines between Houston and Beaumont in order to allow trains to be routed directly to Baton Rouge and New Orleans and avoid a temporary detour through Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
BNSF Railway said it had resumed regular service on its routes from Houston to the north and west and that nearly all BNSF facilities in the region were open.
Kansas City Southern said a force majeure declared on Aug. 25 remained in place but that embargoes had been lifted for traffic between Laredo and Houston, Corpus Christi, Victoria and Rosenberg, and Laredo.