As homeowners and businesses try to re-build life post-Ivan, the burden of this new ‘boom’ is being weighted on the country’s port system.
On paper, analysis of the problem could be seen as simple issues of supply and demand, coupled with the realities of sometimes complex social issues: in essence, more than three times the usual number of ships loaded with cars, building supplies, food and appliances are bombarding the Port Authority system, which has a reduced amount of equipment to deal with the onrush. Further, goods and materials are not being collected at the distribution end fast enough. The resultant backlog is increasing; it also seems to be unavoidable.
This week Cabinet decided to address this issue with a number of issues directed at alleviating the “cargo crunch” at the harbour.
Port Director Paul Hurlston says that Grand Cayman’s port is one of the fastest growing in the region. Though small, it is credited as the best in the Caribbean, and up until September, often had a processing and same-day turnaround time for offloading, collecting, emptying and returning containers on the ship which brought them here. However, the volume of recent shipping arrivals has increased from some three weekly to 10, even larger ships and the port is understandably challenged. Cement and aggregate vessels swell these numbers even further.
Nevertheless, today, dockside operations still manage to function smoothly – thanks to 22-hour days and extra staff and equipment – and with additional help co-opted from trucking companies.
The area of greatest difficulty these days is not the ‘full container load’ imports-these trailers are usually cleared by the importers, and then promptly delivered, emptied and returned to the port compound. Current arrangements even permit contents to be cleared and collected directly from the dock.
Rather, it is those containers that are shared, the ‘less than container’ loads brought in by smaller companies and individuals that comprise the challenge-and the delays; the resultant backlog is containers stacked four high, and up to 30 deep at the distribution centre.
Noting that the port does not handle the delivery of goods from the cargo centre (this is done by private truckers) Mr. Hurlston explains that all importers are immediately notified as their containers arrive. Even so, the port warehouse is still receiving cargo faster than is being claimed, and because of this, operations are now about one week behind schedule.
This is compounded by yet another Ivan phenomenon – the use of containers for storage – which has produced a problem with dire local and even international implications: The port estimates that there are some 2,500 unreturned units (20 foot containers) around Grand Cayman. This is straining the supply of shipping containers that are recycled and used for international cargo operations.
An additional complication at the port involves the process for importing cars which is proving to be equally convoluted. Now, both the Miami and Tampa ports are at capacity; new American security systems for documenting and processing vehicle exports are longer and more detailed, resulting in situations wherein ships sometimes actually leave port with fewer cars than they can hold.
And even the much-needed return of cruise tourists to Grand Cayman poses a challenge, for commercial offloading cannot take place whilst cruise ships and tenders are in the vicinity.
Yet in all this, the Port Authority still must operate within strict international codes, or face penalties and possible shutdown – a situation which Mr. Hurlston resolves to avoid, even if it means sacrificing his own vacation time and weekends. To this point, he has tried to anticipate and plan for growth – even the rebuilt finger pier, which was damaged in bad weather several years ago, proves invaluable today; ‘Without its restoration, we simply couldn’t manage what we are doing today,’ he notes.
Mr. Hurlston hopes that the explanation of the difficulties that presently beleaguer the Port Authority will generate a cooperative spirit from the Caymanian public, including shipping agencies, freight forwarders and truckers.
‘For the good of the country, everyone needs to cooperate,’ he pleads. ‘Businesses need to promptly remove, clear and return containers; smaller companies and individuals must keep track of and collect their goods as soon as possible; containers being used to store personal effects must be quickly returned to the cargo centre; and new vehicle purchases should only be made with the expectation of a delayed arrival.’
Mr. Hurlston anticipates that with greater public cooperation and the newly introduced efficiency measures, things should move much faster at the port.