In 2009, 44 percent of U.S. foreign trade by value (all modes, including trade with Mexico and Canada) was moved by vessels operating into and out of U.S. seaports (MARAD, 2011). These water trades amounted to some 2 billion metric tons of freight. The economic impact of disruptions to this movement of freight have been documented to be substantial, demonstrating that the viability of the U.S. economy depends to a significant degree on the ability of its maritime system – and in particular its ports – to flow freight efficiently through into and out of the land-based domestic freight transportation system. Compounding the potential vulnerability of the nation’s port system to disruptions, in 2009 the top 10 U.S. ports accounted for 60 percent of oceangoing vessel calls. And in this same year U.S. foreign trade accounted for some 16 percent of global waterborne trade, indicating the considerable potential for not only costly but also far-reaching impacts from U.S. seaport closures. For example, many firms were unprepared for the labor strike that shut down the six largest container ports on the West Coast in 2002, at an estimated cost to the U.S. economy running into the billions of dollars. And cargo concentration was again a concern. The six largest West Coast container ports were responsible for more than half of all foreign containers passing through U.S. ports, at a total worth of just over $300 billion (Farris 2008). Terrorist actions as well as natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis) could have similarly devastating impacts on people’s lives, jobs, and the economy at large.
The objective of this project is to develop a set of high level guidelines, illustrated by example studies, that will help seaport authorities as well as the state DOTs in which such ports are located to minimize lost throughput capacity resulting from a major disruption. Whether such a disruption is a natural or man-made event, the goal is to bring the seaport’s freight movement system back to its prior operating level before costly and protracted delays can occur. The focus of the effort is on identifying and elaborating on the steps needed to coordinate freight movements through ports in times of severe stress on existing operating infrastructures and services – whether being stressed because of damage to port facilities, to the highway, rail and waterway routes leading into and out of the port, or because of the need to handle additional cargo volumes due to port disruptions elsewhere. The catch-all term used below for such efforts is port resilience – the ability of a seaport to withstand and bounce back from a serious threat to its ability to process freight in an efficient, cost-effective manner.