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The economic impact of the Baltimore bridge collapse

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We start this hour, though, marking one week since a malfunctioning cargo barge collapsed a major bridge across the Port of Baltimore. Vessels and cranes and divers are there, attempting to clear many thousands of tons of mangled steel out of the murky waterway. Yesterday, Maryland Governor Wes Moore described how difficult this is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WES MOORE: We're talking about a situation where a portion of the bridge beneath the water has been described by unified command as chaotic wreckage. Every time someone goes in the water, they are taking a risk. Every time we move a piece of the structure, the situation could become even more dangerous. We have to move fast, but we cannot be careless.

KELLY: So how quickly can that channel be cleared, and what does that mean for the region and the broader economy? Let's bring in NPR's Laurel Wamsley, who has been on the ground in Baltimore. Hey there, Laurel.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And NPR's Camila Domonoske, who reports on the auto industry and energy. Hey, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: Hey. OK, Laurel, kick us off. We just heard Governor Moore there talking about that they need to do this. They need to do it fast. What do we know about the timeline - about how fast the port could possibly reopen?

WAMSLEY: Well, they have avoided giving any sort of timeline, but they said yesterday that the situation underwater was even more complicated than they'd been hoping for and perhaps more complicated than it looks to those of us above the waterline. And they - you know, that's perhaps trying to lower expectations for how quickly this is all going to be resolved.

Though, progress is being made. Yesterday, they opened an 11-foot-deep channel. That's a temporary channel that will allow some barges and tugboats that have been trapped in the port to get out. In fact, the first vessel was able to get out using that channel yesterday.

DOMONOSKE: But - this is Camila here - obviously, 11 feet is not very deep when you are talking about these big ships. This is step one in what is going to be a gradual, phased process...

KELLY: Right.

DOMONOSKE: ...Of reopening the port.

KELLY: Right, right. It's interesting how just nobody wants to even begin putting a timeline on any of this. Laurel, back to you. Put into context how much business would normally be happening per day at the port - when you say, like, you know, one boat was able to get through yesterday.

WAMSLEY: A lot, normally - Baltimore is a major hub for import and exporting vehicles, and it's in the top 20 in the U.S. in terms of cargo overall. Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. secretary of transportation, said last week that, normally, between $100 million and $200 million in cargo moves in and out of the port in Baltimore each day. And that affects $200 million in wages, he said. He said there's 8,000 jobs directly affected by the port's activities. But I want to note there's still some business happening at the port. There's one part of it that's called Tradepoint Atlantic. That's beyond the Key Bridge. But of course, the biggest business is from the really big ships, and those still can't get in or out via the main shipping channel.

KELLY: All right. OK, Camila, hop in here because one of the things I have learned as we have covered this tragedy has been just how critical Baltimore is for vehicle shipments. If ships still can't get in and out, and we don't know when they will be able to, how does the auto industry respond?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, well, they figure out different ways of bringing these imported vehicles in. And some cars are still coming in through Baltimore. So Volkswagen and BMW both use that part of the port that Laurel just talked about that's still open. And that terminal could actually import some more vehicles for other automakers. They're in talks about that now. We know some vehicles have been taken to nearby ports and then transported over land to the land operations of the Baltimore port for processing that happens. You have parts that are installed, inspections, really important paperwork. So they're doing all that still in Baltimore. There are other ports that are farther away. Some automakers are weighing half a dozen different alternatives for how to get these cars to dealerships. I spoke to Kristin Dziczek. She's a policy advisor at the Federal Reserve who focuses on the auto industry.

KRISTIN DZICZEK: One thing I know about logistics is that these are the people who have not only plan A and plan B and plan C, but they've got plan Z.

DOMONOSKE: So we are moving pretty far down the alphabet...

KELLY: (Laughter) yeah.

DOMONOSKE: ...But vehicles are rerouting. And in some cases, we know it's successful. Mercedes says they are confident there will be no delays in getting imported vehicles to customers this month.

KELLY: So that's the latest on cars. What about all the other industries affected by this port being shut down?

DOMONOSKE: Sure. So the container ships are being rerouted to nearby ports. There are other kinds of imports where Baltimore plays a proportionally larger role - things like sugar, lumber, gypsum, which is used in drywall and fertilizer, and it's also actually a food additive. My understanding is that, like with cars, there are other ways of getting these goods into the U.S.

Then there's coal, where we're talking about exports - coal that the U.S. exports mostly to Asia. Some government analysts have said that this port disaster could affect the volume of coal that is exported from the U.S., so it's possible this bridge collapse in Baltimore could have a big effect on people who are making bricks in India.

KELLY: Fascinating. Laurel, I want to talk about jobs a little closer to home here in the U.S. because, for every day this port is not operational, people who would normally be working there aren't working. What's happening to them?

WAMSLEY: Yeah, the local impact, particularly on Baltimore County, is significant. All of this mess just means less work for the longshoremen in particular. I spoke with Scott Cowan. He's the president of the International Longshoremen's Association, Local 333, in Baltimore, and he said that some folks still have some work. But it's those really big ships that really employ the most people. They generate the most work. And those are going to be the hardest ships to get back in the port.

So yesterday that 11-foot channel opened, and they're working on a couple other channels - one that'll be 20 feet deep. But the channel that's used by those really big ships and that's blocked right now is 50 feet deep. And the clock is ticking for workers, and the money that they're not receiving right now is real. And so I'm hearing that 1,300 port workers have lost work. Some of them have applied for unemployment, and the federal government is getting involved. They've set up a couple of centers in the area that will help local businesses apply for these low-interest loans that will help them keep operations running and keep their workers paid during this time.

KELLY: That is NPR's Camila Domonoske and Laurel Wamsley getting us up to speed on where things stand one week after that cargo ship took down the Key Bridge at the port of Baltimore. Thanks to you both.

WAMSLEY: Thank you.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.