Port Watch – Cramming 100 Years Into Two

Tom Marian
Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Two years ago, Hurricane Harvey brought maritime commerce to its knees as the once-in-500-year event descended upon the shores of southeast Texas. To this day, dredges are still toiling away on the waterways that feed the Houston Ship Channel to remove the tens of thousands of cubic yards of shoaling – a parting gift from Harvey. Another present from Harvey was a dismal August 2017 arrival picture. Fortunately, August 2019 was more positive than negative in the Lonestar State.

Writ large, the numbers were 2% better for the state’s major ports. This positive result kept the cumulative arrival picture in the black by 1.3% for the year. While some ports fared particularly well, there were others that cannot wait for the fall trade bump. Three ports chalked up their highest monthly arrival numbers for the year. Unfortunately, only one of the three – Freeport – continues to outpace its prior year’s performance. Consequently, the port that will “Get You There”, inched ever so closely to the triple-digit arrival count as it registered a 9% monthly higher count and eclipsed 2018’s year-to-date arrivals by over 9%.

Brownsville also enjoyed a banner month with a monthly high following the weakest monthly performance of 2019. Nevertheless, an 83% monthly jump could not pull this border port into positive year-to-date territory. The Calhoun Port Authority’s situation was nearly identical to that of Brownsville. A monthly high producing a torrid monthly percentage gain but a year-to-date yield that fell short.

The remaining monthly gainers were the ports of Corpus Christi and Galveston. The former saw its second highest vessel arrival resulting in a 7% gain which kept it ahead of last year’s pace by 1.5%. The latter port still claims top honors for the largest year-to-date percentage gain which currently stands at over 23%. The overall monthly arrivals were not particularly impressive, but Galveston managed to eke out a 5% uptick after a particularly soft month. Of course, there are a couple of ports on the east side of the state that would give their eye teeth for a positive month. Texas City’s arrival count fell by over 8% as the port saw the fewest number of arrivals in 2019. This dearth of activity pulled the port further into the red on a year-to-date basis which currently stands at negative 6.8%. Sabine also saw a wane in monthly numbers to the tune of nearly 6%. Interestingly enough, despite this decrease, it improved upon its year-to-date performance which currently stands at 8%.

Houston nearly matched its July arrival count in August but still came up two arrivals shy yielding a 0.3% down tick. This, in turn, crept the year-to-date numbers closer to that of 2018’s; however, 2019 still trails its predecessor by 2.2%. Dissecting the arrivals by vessel type reveals a mixed bag of results. The energy trio – Chemicals, LPG and Tankers – were all off for the month and, with the exception of chemical tankers, lag last year’s arrival counts. It appears that demand is softening across these three categories as the end of the third quarter looms. This is certainly not the case on the bulk carrier front as 31% more bulkers visited Houston’s docks bolstering the year-over-year percentage gain from 6% to 9%. General cargo arrivals, on the other hand stumbled by over 9% last month which, in turn, dragged this category further into the red for the year. Demand for cars continues to soften as the fewest number of car carriers called upon the port in the month of August. Yet, demand for containerized cargoes continues to rise in 2019 with exports slightly ahead of imports. At the current pace, the port is poised to break yet another TEU record which is becoming an annual rite of passage.

Perhaps another rite of passage throughout the coast of Texas is that of the hurricane season. Texans watch those lows that meander into the Gulf and wonder what they will become and where they will go. Most storms will fade into obscurity; others will cause thousands to flee; and – a select few – will leave their mark on the minds of many for decades. Those once-in-a-lifetime events are rare beasts that few will experience but many will talk about. Unfortunately, in the Bayou City, the 500-year floods are becoming biennial events. Thus, giving the term tempus fugit a whole new meaning.

  • Date October 8, 2019
  • Tags 2019 September