It was a record-breaking year for Georgia ports.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, the ports had a 4.6 percent increase in tonnage, handling a total of 9.5 million tons.It was the eighth consecutive year of growth and a new volume record for cargo.

Georgia has deep-water ports in Savannah and Brunswick on the Atlantic and river barge terminals at Bainbridge and Columbus. Savannah accounts for most of the traffic, with 7.6 million tons shipped through that port last fiscal year.

Much of the increase in Georgia port traffic can be attributed to a 10 percent jump in container cargo, a substantial contributor to the overall increase in total tonnage moving through Savannah.

Breakbulk tonnage through Savannah was virtually the same over last year although there were some increases in commodities such as wood and paper products, iron and steel, machinery and aluminum.

Liquid and dry bulk cargo declined last year. Although wheat, corn and soybean shipments were up, petroleum products were down.

The Brunswick facility showed a 16.7 percent increase in tonnage over 1994, coming in at 1.774 million tons during the 1995 fiscal year. The increase was fueled by stronger shipments of cargo such as lumber, wood pulp, clay, animal feed, limestone, gypsum, oats and sand.

Tonnage at Bainbridge was up slightly, but dropped 9 percent in Columbus.

The selection of Savannah by Home Depot for its Eastern U.S. distribution center promises to increase tonnage even more in future years, said Doug J. Marchand, Georgia Ports Authority executive director.

When the facilities are completed next year, ships loaded with Home Depot imports from around the world will unload at Savannah for inland distribution to the chain's stores.

Empty containers will then be loaded with export products.

''It may come in as a load of light fixtures and leave stuffed with wood pulp," said Mr. Marchand.

The system is seen as a way to make the shipping process more economical and efficient, he said.

The future for the Port of Savannah as it competes with East Coast rivals such as Jacksonville and Charleston has been brightened by a series of recent improvements, Mr. Marchand said.

The old Talmadge Bridge over the Savannah River, which was so low ships actually collided with the structure, was replaced in 1991. The old bridge was 135 feet high. The new one is 185 feet high.

The Savannah harbor was widened and deepened last year.

''We can handle the largest container ships that are floating," said Mr. Marchand.

The port authority is also constructing a seventh container berth at Savannah's main Garden City terminal.

Despite the progress, however, Savannah still lags behind archrival Charleston.

Charleston last fiscal year handled 8.6 million tons of cargo. Savannah's tonnage was a million tons less.

''They are still a little bit ahead of us," said Mr. Marchand. "I think the competition is extremely healthy. But the focus here is mainly on making as great an economic impact on the state as we can."

Charleston is engaging in its own set of physical improvements as well. A new bridge over the Cooper River is in the works by the South Carolina Department of Transportation, said Anne Moise, spokeswoman for the South Carolina State Ports Authority.

The current bridge is 150 feet tall - which is high enough so that there have been no navigational problems, said Ms. Moise.

''But the bridge is old," she said. "It was built in the 1920s and it's time to be replaced."

The new bridge, she said, will be taller than the old one. But whether it will top the height of the new Savannah bridge remains to be seen.

''It is time, in building the next generation of bridges, to be concerned about the next generation of ships," said Ms. Moise.

Watch out, Savannah.