The CMA CGM Brazil docks at Garden City Terminal on Sept. 28, 2020. The Brazil is the largest vessel ever to call the U.S. East Coast. The Port of Savannah, with 1,345 acres and 34 ship-to-shore cranes, is uniquely equipped to handle the influx of export and import cargo related to vessels in the 15,000-TEU class. (Georgia Ports Authority/Jeremy Polston)

Driven by a steady export business, the Port of Savannah handled more container traffic in 2020 than the previous year, eking out growth in a pandemic-plagued year that saw the first quarter end with a sharp downturn in trade.  

The port handled more than 4.68 million twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, up 1.8 percent from 2019’s total of 4.59 million. 

Officials attributed much of the strength to the port’s balanced nature: While many ports bring in much more than they send out, exports made up almost exactly half of Savannah’s container trad  (49 percent). They held steady as demand for Georgia’s kaolin clay, forestry products, cotton, auto parts, chicken and other commodities proved resilient around the world.  

“Savannah’s capacity to take on additional trade as well as its diversified cargo portfolio — including e-commerce and strong export markets — helped to drive business gains,” said GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch in a news release. “Additionally, a housing boom has translated into strong demand for furniture, appliances and other home goods crossing our docks. We remain optimistic that the conditions for growth will continue, but it is too early to know if the pace of cargo expansion will carry on as it has.” 

The year closed out with the port’s busiest December ever, with container traffic up 24 percent from the previous year, capping five consecutive months growth that followed five months of declines as the pandemic shook out and supply chains readjusted earlier in the year.  

Another major success was the growth at the Appalachian Regional Terminal in northwest Georgia, an inland port that saw traffic grow by 73 percent in a single year.  

Containers can travel by rail up to that point before being offloaded to trucks for transport to their final destination, saving on logistics costs and improving transit times.  

That trend dovetailed well with an increase in rail cargo destined for Memphis, Tenn., the Savannah port’s second largest inland market beyond Atlanta. A mega rail terminal is being built that will more than double the Savannah port’s rail lift to 2 million TEUs.  

One negative: so-called “roll-on, roll-off” cargo like cars and tractors, stood at 602,748 units, down 8 percent, or 55,000 units from the previous year.  

Vessels including the 15,000-TEU CMA CGM Brazil made 1,990 calls on the port in 2020, about 38 per week.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...