When 2020 dawned, the major concern at the Port of Long Beach centered around a burgeoning trade war with China.
But then the global coronavirus pandemic quickly changed that, posing challenges the port had never before faced.
The fallout from the pandemic was the focus of Executive Director Mario Cordero’s annual State of the Port address on Thursday morning, Feb. 4, during which he touched on how the port marshaled resources to keep operations going, chronicled the year’s wildly inconsistent cargo numbers — which flatlined in the first half of 2020 and then boomed to record levels ahead of the holidays — and touched on several positives, including the opening of the Gerald Desmond Replacement Bridge. He also looked forward to 2021 being about recovery.
“For too many of us, 2020 was devastating,” Cordero said. “But international trade was one of the bright spots.”
When the pandemic initially hit California, the first task was figuring out how to adjust.
“When the COVID pandemic hit, it was all hands on deck at the port,” Cordero said in the virtual address. “We gathered all our stakeholders — the Coast Guard, terminal operators, carriers, the ILWU, truckers, basically everyone.”
Plans were quickly made to open evening gates later so equipment could be cleaned between shifts. A coronavirus testing site was opened on port property and office personnel began working from home.
The goal was simple but difficult: Keeping the port open and moving despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Long Beach Harbor Commission President Frank Colonna, who gave the opening remarks, said keeping the port open was a priority.
“We had to make a major decision: Should we keep the port open? The answer, of course, was yes,” Colonna said. “This region and the entire nation depend on us for trade and jobs.”
Along the way, The nation’s second-busiest port — after the Port of Los Angeles — managed to hit record-breaking cargo months and open its long-awaited “Bridge to Everywhere,” an achievement that was years in the making to replace the aging Gerald Desmond Bridge.
Cargo volume plummeted in the early months — when, as Cordero noted, the U.S. economy seemed “headed for historic collapse.”
But trade rebounded in the summer, as shoppers with limited entertainment options turned more frequently to e-commerce. Imports, Cordero said, soon began to surge, marking months of stellar cargo movement following the dreadful spring. December, he said, “turned out to be our busiest month ever” in the port’s 109-year history.
“The year 2020 was like a crescendo in nature,” Cordero said. “We started soft — in a sea of uncertainty — and we finished strong, topping 8.1 million TEUs, our best year ever.”
TEU stands for 20-foot equivalent unit, the universal measurement for cargo.
“It was just amazing,” Cordero said. “After a dire first half of the year, cargo came roaring back.”
And besides the new bridge, various other projects, both construction-related and technological ones, also continued or finished. Later in the year, as cargo surged, the port opened its Short-Term Overflow Resource Yard for containers, for example. It also launched its online Wave Report, a digital dashboard to help truckers plan for cargo movements.
Construction of the final phase of the Long Beach Container Terminal managed to stay on track, Cordero said, as did the nearly finished construction of the new Fireboat Station 15, the first of two facilities that will house new fireboats and crews. The station is set to open “within weeks,” the executive director said.
Work also moved forward, Cordero said, on environmental initiatives designed to transition all terminal cargo-handling equipment to zero-emissions by 2030.
The port’s cargo-handling fleet, Cordero said, is now 15% zero-emissions. Cordero also said he anticipates the port will make progress this year on its goal, under the Clean Truck Program, to have all of the trucks entering and exiting the port be zero-emissions vehicles by 2035.
Cordero, overall, predicted 2021 will be a “year of recovery,” with stabilization expected by the second half of this year, both at the port specifically and in the economy overall.
“The past 12 months have been tragic; many lost family and friends,” he said. “We know the pandemic will leave a lasting impact on the port.”