The recession continues to hammer the Port of Savannah, with container traffic down 9.3 percent in December compared to the same month a year earlier.

It marks the eighth consecutive month of year-over-year decline at Savannah, an unprecedented trend for the normally fast-growing Georgia port.

Imports were down 11.6 percent in December over the same month in 2007, according to state data. Exports dropped 7.6 percent.

Many major retailers such as Target Corp. and Home Depot Inc. import products through Savannah, storing the goods in giant warehouses for distribution throughout the United States.

As the U.S. economy has declined, demand for those imports has dropped. Exports are also decreasing now as consumers in other countries buy less.

Robert Morris, spokesman for the Georgia Ports Authority, said the newly released numbers are not as severe as they might seem because 2007 was an unusually strong year for the port.

“Monthly numbers are not good barometers because they rely on the month a year ago. One month a year ago, we had record volumes,” said Mr. Morris.

December’s decline in Savannah, however, was the steepest percentage drop of 2008. The year started with double- digit growth. In January, 2008, Savannah  experienced a 26.1 percent jump in container traffic over the same month in 2007. Declines hit in May and have continued each month since.

Lower shipping volume means less revenue for the ports authority, which is a state agency that funds itself. Fees paid by shipping companies fund the ports authority’s $245 million annual budget.

Compensating for the slowdown, the ports authority has cut expenses by 7.5 percent through a hiring freeze, deferring non-critical port maintenance and other cost-cutting measures, Mr. Morris said. The ports authority has 975 employees.

Despite the downturn, there have been no layoffs at the ports authority, Mr. Morris added.  

Business is bad at ports nationwide. Traffic at the nation’s major retail container ports in 2008  was the lowest since 2004, according to a report by the National Retail Federation and IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting company.

“2008 was a slow year for the ports for the simple reason that it was a slow year for retail sales,”  Jonathan Gold, an NRF vice president said in a recent news release. “We don’t expect a significant increase in traffic at the ports until retail sales return to normal levels, and even then retailers will be careful not to over-stock.”

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