The largest ship ever to visit Charleston — or any East Coast port, for that matter — arrived here Sunday, a signal that our port is doing better than expected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new CMA CGM Brazil is 1,201 feet long, 167 feet wide and displaces about 150,000 tons of water, which makes it much larger than the newest Navy aircraft carrier. It can carry more than 15,000 20-foot-long shipping containers known in the trade as TEUs (20-foot equivalent units). It’s no wonder that small crowds of onlookers gathered at points around the harbor to catch a glimpse of the enormous vessel.
Not all its cargo was destined for Charleston: It previously called on New York, Norfolk and Savannah on its current voyage.
But as The Post and Courier’s David Wren reported, container imports are rising at the port, which took in 96,965 TEUs in August, close to the record 103,221 reported in August 2019. It’s a clear and welcome sign that the slowdown in port volumes during the shutdown period is now being reversed.
In July, TEU volume at the port was down 16% from a year earlier, but breakbulk tonnage (cargo that is not shipped in containers) was up 13%, and — setting a record— vehicles handled by the port were up by a whopping 47%.
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The numbers suggest that South Carolina’s trade with China, our largest trading partner, is returning to previous levels and will continue to grow as both economies recover from the dual shocks of a trade war and COVID-19. “Our imports are returning to — and at times surpassing — pre-pandemic levels as consumers invest in more goods for their homes and families,” said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority.
The major financial drawback for the port this year has been the suspension of ocean cruises. The Carnival Sunshine, whose home port is Charleston, ceased sailing in March, and cruise lines have suspended U.S. operations until at least Oct. 31. But far fewer germs travel on container ships, and strong consumer demand responsible for the rising import figures reflects the success of early efforts to prop up the economy with pandemic relief funds. Nationwide, imports rose nearly 6% over the year from August 2019, setting a record for TEUs, Mr. Wren reported.
Whether the strong demand continues while some businesses remain closed likely will depend on further, much-needed pandemic relief now tied up in Congress. Our congressional leaders must find a way to reach middle ground or risk the nation taking an economic step backward.
It is perhaps ironic, and certainly a sign of the continuing interdependence of the U.S. and Chinese economies, that a significant part of the trillions of dollars dispensed by the federal government in pandemic relief has ended up in Chinese pockets. Whatever you think of that, the good news is that a lot of it flowed, and continues to flow, through the Port of Charleston.