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The busiest port in the US


Cargo containers at the Port of Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021 in Los Angeles. Despite its glitzy image, L.A. is home to the busiest port in the Western Hemisphere.

By Soumya Karlamangla


When you think of Los Angeles, the first thing that comes to mind probably is not a massive, industrial shipping hub.


But despite its glitzy image, LA is home to the busiest port in the Western Hemisphere. It plays a major role in the global supply chain, the disruption of which by the pandemic has led to shortages of computer chips, diapers and pet food, as well as inflation and price hikes that are expected to worsen as holiday shopping kicks off.


In a bid to ease the backlog, President Joe Biden announced last week that the Port of LA would start operating 24/7, as the adjoining Port of Long Beach began doing last month.


Together, the two maritime gateways account for 40% of all seaborne imports to the United States. Biden’s involvement in the ports’ operations speaks to just how crucial they are to the health of the U.S. economy.


This weekend, I drove down to the Port of Los Angeles, which is 25 miles south of downtown LA in a community called San Pedro.


As I approached the coastline from the freeway, a tangle of cranes emerged on the horizon. Entering the port felt like descending into another world, a sprawling complex of colorful containers as big as railway cars and stacked taller than multistory buildings.


The port, which spans 12 square miles on sea and land, moves nearly $300 billion of cargo each year, largely to and from Asia. Its biggest trading partner by far is China, followed by Japan and Vietnam.


Demand for goods has been higher than ever this year, as Americans’ buying habits have shifted during the pandemic, spending more on products — new desks and stationary bikes — than services, such as going out to dinner or a movie. LA officials say that 2021 is on track to break the port’s annual record for imports and exports.


As I scanned the shoreline, I spotted ships docked at the port as well as several barges stationed farther out, waiting to approach.


Before the pandemic, ships typically arrived and immediately began unloading their goods. But the logjam has forced ships to line up at sea for days. As of Friday, 29 barges were waiting for a berth.


This bottleneck has consequences beyond the economy. The ships are pumping out pollutants as they idle, clogging the air with smoke. Plus, one of their anchors may have caused the recent oil spill off the Orange County coast.


The new expansion of hours at the LA port is aimed at getting these cargo ships in and out faster. The move will probably help reduce congestion, but it is no silver bullet.


Americans’ relentless purchasing has created shortages at the factory level, restricting what products can even be made and shipped. Coronavirus surges worldwide have closed manufacturing plants and limited the number of workers who usually toil along different parts of the supply chain.


In LA, even if barges are unloaded more quickly onto the docks because of round-the-clock operations, there are not enough truck drivers and available warehouses to prevent bottlenecks from forming elsewhere.


After all, it is a supply chain, and the port is just one link.

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