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The impact of the Baltimore bridge collapse on shipping and supply chains

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The collapse of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge after being hit by a large cargo ship is disrupting shipping and supply chains. The accident is also prompting questions about the size of ships using the port. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam follows global shipping and joins us now to talk about this. Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So as we look at the pictures around the port of Baltimore and the aftermath of this accident, you see tangled remains of the bridge and a lot of other debris. What kind of impact is that having on the port and beyond?

NORTHAM: Well, right now, marine traffic is at a standstill. Investigations have to be carried out, so ships can't move around the port. And even if they could, there's a lot of wreckage from the collapsed bridge that they would have to navigate. I spoke with Abe Eshkenazi, and he heads up the Association for Supply Chain Management, and he told me that, you know, Baltimore is the largest port in the U.S. for handling cars and light trucks and trailers. It's designed so vehicles can roll on and roll off the ships. And not every port has that capability. And Eshkenazi says, you know, that's just one problem they're facing.

ABE ESHKENAZI: In the short term, we're going to have to address the ships that are already in port that can't get out. And then similarly, we have a number of ships that are already in transit that are scheduled to come into the port that can't get in. Obviously, they're going to have to get redirected either New York, New Jersey or, you know, the Roanoke port.

NORTHAM: And, you know, Debbie, Eshkenazi says, you know, there's things like warehousing and trucking and distribution. You know, if ships are diverted, they'll be further away from their destination, so it's going to cost more to get the goods to where they're supposed to go.

ELLIOTT: You know, around the world, we've already seen shipping being disrupted. There are attacks by militants in the Red Sea. There's a drought in Panama, which means long wait times to get through the Panama Canal. Now this. Will the Baltimore accident have any impact further on global shipping?

NORTHAM: I talked to several analysts about this, and it doesn't appear at this point that will be the case. Baltimore is one of the smaller U.S. ports. You know, it's dwarfed by New York, New Jersey and the Port of Los Angeles, which is where many ships coming from Asia dock. If the ships meant for Baltimore can be diverted to other east coast ports, it should be OK.

ELLIOTT: There are many questions that have to be answered about the Dali, the Singapore flagship that ran into the Key Bridge. One of them is the size of the ship. It was really big. Could that have played a role in this accident?

NORTHAM: You know, we're going to have to wait to find out what the investigation, you know, discovers. But, you know, there are much bigger ships out there than the Dali. I spent a few days on one nearly twice that size. And back then - that was a decade ago - it was the largest in the world, and it was enormous. They're even bigger now. You know, I spoke with Jonathan Roach, and he's an analyst at Braemar ACM Shipbroking in London. And he says the problem is the Key Bridge in Baltimore was built in the 1970s, when the largest ships were about a third of the size of the Dali, and it was much easier to correct any problems that arose, such as losing power. Let's have a listen to him.

JONATHAN ROACH: You know, if you had a mechanical failure on one of these smaller ships, there was a possibility to put the anchor down. Now these vessels are so heavy, they have that sort of mass and energy behind them. So if you do have a failure, then it's going to cause huge damage.

NORTHAM: And of course, Debbie, we saw what sort of damage, you know, a ship like size can do yesterday.

ELLIOTT: Yes, we did. NPR's international affairs correspondent, Jackie Northam. Thank you.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.