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The U.S. Is Importing Historic Amounts Of Stuff — And It's Causing Cargo Ship Jams

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The United States is importing historic amounts of stuff from overseas, causing the U.S. trade deficit to hit record highs. Greg Rosalsky from our Planet Money podcast reports the shipping industry is having trouble handling all of it.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: Humongous ships filled with cargo are creating a massive traffic jam on the water. In the San Francisco Bay, it's gotten so bad that the U.S. Coast Guard has basically been telling ships, guys, don't go past the Golden Gate Bridge and enter the bay. I mean, please. We don't have room for you. Robert Blomerth oversees vessel traffic for the Coast Guard in San Francisco. He says the ships have been waiting for days, sometimes over a week, just to come in and drop off their cargo. Last week there were 16 massive ships waiting offshore.

ROBERT BLOMERTH: It's completely abnormal. We've never had a situation since I've been here where ships have had to wait offshore. We've never had this.

ROSALSKY: Up in the Seattle-Tacoma area, there are so many container ships coming in that the Coast Guard has been asking them to anchor 30 miles north near Whidbey Island. Residents there have been complaining about the noise they make at night. Tom Bellerud, who manages the ports with the Northwest Seaport Alliance, says they're doing the best they can to end the traffic jam.

TOM BELLERUD: There has been such a surge in cargo volumes that the terminals are having a difficult time processing all the cargo fast enough.

ROSALSKY: We're importing so much right now because with the pandemic, Americans stopped spending as much on services. And they started spending more on tangible stuff, stuff that largely comes from East Asia through West Coast ports. Meanwhile, the pandemic has slowed down the ability for workers to handle all the shipping containers that hold this stuff. Containers have been piling up at dockyards, and trains and trucks have been struggling to get them out fast enough to make room for incoming containers.

Now, the first ship carrying these types of containers, literally big metal boxes, hit the seas in 1956. And Lars Jensen, who analyzes the industry with Vespucci Maritime, says the container shipping industry hasn't seen turmoil on this scale ever before.

LARS JENSEN: It is at least in a state of chaos that I don't think it has been in ever since it was invented in 1956.

ROSALSKY: With all these metal boxes and ships stuck at sea waiting to dock and get unloaded, there aren't enough empty boxes in ships to pick up more goods. And in March a massive container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal and caused more boxes and ships to get tied up. Then last month there was a COVID-19 outbreak at a major port in South China.

JENSEN: What's going on in South China right now is an even larger disturbance than the Suez Canal.

ROSALSKY: All this is causing rising shipping costs and growing delays. It's making it more difficult for stores to restock their shelves, manufacturers and builders to get the parts they need and farmers to export their products. Analysts say it's one big reason the price of stuff is going up. And by the way, it's not even peak shipping season yet. Greg Rosalsky, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VETIVER SONG, "STRANGER STILL (DANIEL T REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.