By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian businesses were yesterday warned to brace for “significant supply chain disruption”, with no freight vessels arriving at Nassau until possibly “late next week”.
Michael Maura, the Nassau Container Port’s (NCP) chief executive, told Tribune Business that Hurricane Irma’s forecast track suggested the Category 5 storm could cause major damage to all Florida ports that serve the Bahamas.
With the likes of Tropical Shipping and Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) having sent their vessels out to sea to avoid the ‘super storm’, Mr Maura said it was uncertain when they would be able to return and resume normal cargo service to the Bahamas.
The ports at Palm Beach, Miami, Port Everglades and Jacksonville supply 75 per cent of freight destined for New Providence, and the NCP chief acknowledged that the likely damage to Florida’s port infrastructure will be a “major concern” for Bahamian companies in the short-term at least.
“NCP may not receive a vessel until late next week,” Mr Maura confirmed to Tribune Business via e-mail. “The transportation infrastructure in Florida is a major concern. Hurricane Irma is expected to impact the port of Miami, Port Everglades, Port of Palm Beach and port of Jacksonville.
“As previously mentioned, approximately 75 per cent of cargo for New Providence is loaded at these ports. Vessels serving the Bahamas trade are being sent out to sea empty to avoid Irma. Once Irma passes they will circle back to their home port to be loaded. This could be on Tuesday of next week after the US Coast Guard provides an all-clear.”
Mr Maura, in a subsequent interview with this newspaper, said: “The concern I have, and that our company has, is that it’s going to Miami as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane.”
With forecasts suggesting that Irma could strengthen further as a result of the warm waters between the Bahamas and Cuba, and favourable atmospheric conditions, the NCP chief executive said the consequences for Florida’s eastern seaboard ports could be “extremely significant”.
Irma’s forecast track last night showed the ‘super storm’, with its 175 mile per hour winds, going straight up the middle of the US’s ‘sunshine state’. If this holds, it would potentially place all the ports serving the Bahamas - apart from, potentially, Jacksonville, on the eastern side of a major hurricane where the worst weather is typically located.
Mr Maura predicted that the short 20-mile distance between them would ensure Irma likely dealt out similar treatment to Miami and Port Everglades. There is a further 60-70 miles to Port Palm Beach, which typically delivers 50 per cent of the freight received by Arawak Cay-based NCP, and even Jacksonville in northern Florida could receive Category 4 winds.
“It will have a pretty significant impact on our supply chain,” Mr Maura said of Irma. “I do not believe it will put us out of business for any extended period of time, but I expect we will experience significant supply chain disruption next week.”
Tropical Shipping, MSC and other carriers serving the Bahamas will have to recall their ships once Irma is passed, and then wait for US Coastguard and pilot inspections to ensure there are no hazards that will prevent them from berthing back in Florida. Only then will freight deliveries resume.
“It is an extensive process, but I expect that by the end of next week to receive cargo in Nassau,” Mr Maura said.
Apart from cargo shipping disruption, Irma is also likely to hit the availability and price of construction material, groceries and other commodities and essentials for post-storm recovery in the Bahamas (see other article on Page 1B).
“Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas and, as the rebuilding effort continues, building material supplies will be directed to Texas,” Mr Maura said.
“If Hurricane Irma results in significant destruction to Florida, and parts of Georgia and South Carolina, these disasters will also place additional demand on building materials.
“As demand surges in the US, prices may rise which may affect the Bahamian construction sector and Bahamas hurricane relief efforts.”
As for food-stuffs, Mr Maura added: “Approximately 60 per cent of the groceries imported into Nassau are supplied by Florida-based suppliers. It is worth noting that many of the Florida suppliers are on the west coast or middle of the state, with the produce suppliers primarily being in Miami.”
But he said SYSCO Foods, the multi-billion dollar food supplier and wholesaler, and owner of Bahamas Food Services (BFS), would ensure supplies remained available to the Bahamas.
Emphasising that the Bahamas was in no danger of a food shortage, Mr Maura told Tribune Business: “Tropical has brought in 30 refrigerated containers, all of which left the Port today and were taken to wholesalers and retailers to be placed in refrigerators and freezers.
“From a Nassau food suppliers perspective, we’re in good shape and will definitely get through a week of inconvenience, depending on what goes on, but supply chains will quickly recover.”
He added: “NCP, as of 12 noon today, has 520 loaded containers in port. Many of these containers hold food and will serve to restock grocery shelves throughout New Providence and our Family Islands.
“Many of the wholesale food agencies in Nassau represent well-known grocery suppliers and will be guaranteed supply. Irma will disrupt supply chains during the short-term,
Mr Maura said NCP’s efforts to get cargo off the dock, and out of its Gladstone Road Freight Terminal, prior to Irma’s arrival in the Bahamas had been successful.
“Container out-gates were 23 per cent up on Tuesday and 4 per cent up on Wednesday, compared to prior week,” he revealed.
“Recent forecasts suggested that Irma would not make a direct hit on Nassau, which likely influenced container collection on Wednesday. Vehicles releases on Tuesday were 41 per cent over prior week, and 63 per cent over Wednesday compared to same day last week.”
He added that MSC and Tropical had partnered with NCP to evacuate 1,000 empty TEUS (twenty-foot equivalent units or containers) prior to Irma’s approach, saying: “Empty containers are of greatest concern to us as they are more likely to be moved during the storm.”
Praising his staff, Mr Maura added: “The team did a phenomenal job. If you come out to the port four days ago you would have seen well over 1,000 TEUs, both empty and loaded.
“Now we don’t have any stacks more than two high. The port is very empty as far as we’re concerned. All crane booms are booms are lowered, and they have been walked back 300 feet from the berth. Containers have been placed around them to protect from sea surges. We’re in good shape.”