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West Coast Cargo Ports Overloaded

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right, to another story now. With many Americans working from home during the pandemic, rush hour traffic is not what it used to be. But just off the coast of Southern California, there is a different kind of traffic jam. Cargo vessels are stacking up, waiting to make their way into overloaded ports. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on how this watery traffic jam is having ripple effects far from the Pacific Ocean.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: To say the U.S. is buying a boatload of stuff from Asia is an understatement. Right now, there are 30 boatloads anchored off the coast of Los Angeles, often waiting for days to make their way into port. Cargo traffic at the port of Los Angeles was 22% higher in November than it was a year ago. And even though Christmas has since come and gone, the spike in cargo shows no sign of letting up.

SANNE MANDERS: This is an enormous surge. This is literally a tsunami of freight coming into the U.S.

HORSLEY: Sanne Manders is chief operating officer for the freight management company Flexport. He says all those hundreds of thousands of containers coming into the country, mostly from China, are straining the transportation network.

MANDERS: Everything is literally jammed right now. You should see this as a normal rush hour on Monday with a snowstorm, and then six months in a row.

HORSLEY: This cargo bottleneck has been building up since summer. Some of the extra shipments are simply making up for what was missed earlier in the year, when the pandemic temporarily closed factories in China, then the United States. But Manders says American consumers are also buying more things to substitute for the travel and entertainment that are currently off limits.

MANDERS: Disposable income so far hasn't gone down that much, but they can't spend it outside the home on holidays and movie nights and bars and restaurants. And as a result, you know, we are just buying much more stuff.

HORSLEY: And like cars on a crowded freeway, all that stuff is moving more slowly. Gene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, says unloading a cargo vessel right now might take twice as long as usual, and getting the cargo to its destination might take longer still.

GENE SEROKA: Truckers, dock workers, warehouse workers alike are all in demand. And everything is tight.

HORSLEY: U.S. factories are also feeling the effects of the port bottleneck. Timothy Fiore, who oversees a survey of factories for the Institute for Supply Management, says some are having to wait longer for supplies from Asia or paying higher prices to find a workaround.

TIMOTHY FIORE: You'll do whatever you have to do so you can ship your own product. That's just a law of nature in manufacturing. So if you have to airfreight something, you'll do it. If you have to work on the weekends, you'll do it. If you have to pay overtime, you'll do it.

HORSLEY: At the Port of LA, Seroka has tried to triage the most time-sensitive shipments, taking care that toys, for example, were unloaded before Christmas. He's asked California's governor to set similar priorities and move dockworkers near the front of the line for COVID vaccinations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEROKA: It's important to prioritize the longshore workers and other waterfront folks who have worked every day through this pandemic, bringing goods out to every one of our 435 congressional districts.

HORSLEY: The cargo traffic jam is expected to continue well into 2021, although shippers may get a breather next month around the Lunar New Year, when Asian factories temporarily shut down. For now, the U.S. is not sending very much cargo back to Asia. More than two-thirds of the cargo containers that left LA in November for the return trip across the Pacific were empty.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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