Natural Calamities & Their Impact on Ports & Terminals


Seaports are the cornerstones of international trade. These facilities are so vital in fact that, for many regions, a reduction in capacity in the port system carries with it grave economic consequences. Limited redundancy of port systems makes them critical nodes in the transportation networks that connect the coast to points inland.

Unlike an intersection between roadways, a port is a major infrastructure investment. The special needs of each mode of transportation that use a port must be accommodated. Seaport activities are therefore often consolidated in one large port area. If that infrastructure becomes damaged and loses capacity,cargo may not simply use an alternate route (as would be the case in the event the roadway intersection, were to become damaged).

General Port Operations

When a ship arrives to unload cargo, it must first enter a queue in the harbour. Once a desired berth becomes available, the ship may dock. This occurs with the help of tugboats. Cranes help unload the cargo. Modern ports rely heavily on containerised cargo to expedite the loading and unloading process. Not all ships are of the same size, and not all berths can accommodate every ship, thus ships are restricted as to which berths they can use. Once off the ship, the cargo is taken to an area referred to as a transit shed for temporary storage and sorting. Trucks and trains pick up the cargo from the transit shed directly. Warehouses provide a more long term storage option.

Natural Disaster-Effect on Ports

Natural disasters can potentially cripple a seaport. Damage to port structures that reduces their functionality will limit the capacity of a port which will result not only in monetary losses attributed to replacement cost of the structures, but will also result in losses due to down-time. Since estuaries and river deltas are often ideal sites for a port (easy connection to inland waterways), many major ports are located in such places. Additionally, many major ports use reclaimed land for seaport facilities. The combination of all these factors makes seaports extremely susceptible to liquefaction and landslides due to seismic events.

Poor seismic performance of seaports has resulted in billions of dollars of losses. Seaports are critical nodes in regional transportation networks and have an important impact on the economy of the area. Thus, the need for risk analysis of port facilities is clear. A general port seismic risk model is vital as that provides information on potential direct and indirect economic losses from potential failure of facilities and operations at a port.

Risk of Losses

The ports which are most vulnerable to natural disasters have been revealed in a report by the Risk Management Solution (RMS), a major catastrophe risk management firm. The report shows that six of the top ten at-risk ports are in the US but the top two are Nagoya, Japan and Guangzhou, China. It is not just the largest ports in the top ten, but also smaller ports due to the nature of their cargo and the natural hazards they face. Concerns can be raised by the study for insurers, who are at risk of suffering billions in losses.

“Outdated techniques and incomplete data have obscured many high-risk locations. The industry needs to cease its guessing game when determining catastrophe risk and port accumulations,” Chris Folkman, director of product management at RMS says.

RMS’ report was released a year after the Tianjin port explosion in China, a man-made disaster that led to more than USD 3 billion in claims after damaging property, disrupting supply chains and killing more than 170 people. The analysis, which also considers the amount of time cargo stays in port, found that the increased use of standardised shipping containers increased the amount of goods exposed to damage.

An Analysis

Ships and ports have grown bigger to accommodate the containers. The increased presence of the larger ships, especially the introduction of the mega ship, has forced more and more sea traffic to rely on the more vulnerable sea ports. Many sea ports are built on landfill making them vulnerable to earthquake.

This apart, the tropical storms and hurricanes cause widespread flooding that carries large amounts of silt and debris into the channel, in some areas up to 10 feet and weighing several tons. As tropical storms become increasingly powerful and frequent, shipping ports in hurricane-prone waters will face continuous challenges from these natural disasters.

Incidentally, the infrastructure damage is not always visible to the naked eye, as in the case of port dredging. With over 241 million tons of cargo being moved annually through the Port of Houston’s Ship Channel, bottlenecks are felt instantly and ripple through to local economies. The large Texas freight hub’s channel depth was reduced by up to 30% in some areas, causing the port commission to approve an additional USD 2 million for Harvey-related dredging expenses.

In 2012, following Hurricane Irene, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received supplementary federal funds to dredge East Coast channels. On average, 5,000 cubic yards, or 500 dump trucks, full of sand were removed daily.

The Way Ahead

Cities contend with the threat of hurricanes and heavy weather every year and a major port taken out of commission for a lengthy period could devastate local businesses and ripple into the national economy. Coast Guard captains of the port face this reality when protecting maritime infrastructure and port facilities and it is through their careful planning and coordination that the maritime transportation system is protected and kept open for business.

The nations vulnerable to natural disasters should have a contingency plan ready. Besides, the port authorities should be prepared to face the challenges. The principal facilities need to have dedicated and distinct space for cargo, petroleum and liquefied natural gas shipment and storage. In moving tankers and sheltering port infrastructure, the participation of industry partners to tackle challenge is vital.

Keeping situational awareness is the greatest challenge. The stakeholders equipped with layup plans of the facility and vessels and how their operations will be affected by the incoming weather, can help to minimise the damage. These plans are dependent on the projected conditions – as the predicted weather changes, so do the plans.

Sea News Feature, January 12