For New Orleans Trade, Hurricane Ida May Knock It Off Near-Record Pace

It’s too early to tell, but when Hurricane Ida came ashore on Sunday, it might have been sufficiently disruptive to keep the New Orleans from setting a record for trade in 2021.

Ranked eighth nationally, what the Census Bureau calls the Port of New Orleans, but which is actually led by the air cargo, looked like it would be in the range of the $137.49 billion record total from 2018, making it one of six to eight of the nation’s top 10 ports to top previous highs.

That was before Ida.

This is the eighth in a series of columns I am writing focused on the nation’s top “ports” — airports, seaports and border crossings — and how they are faring compared not only to last year, in the midst of the pandemic, but previous, more normal years.

These columns are looking at top trade partners, top exports and top imports for each — and some of the factors influencing the results. That would include a hurricane, Gulf refineries were shut down by Ida as of late Monday.

In addition to the “Port of New Orleans,” I am analyzing data for the top-ranked Port of Los AngelesChicago’s O’Hare International AirportPort Laredo in Texas, New York’s JFK International, the Port of Newarkthe Port of Houston, Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, Los Angeles International Airport and the Port of Savannah.

These top 10 matter. They account for about 45% of all U.S. trade, which should top $4 trillion for the third time in the last four years.

Depending on the impact of Hurricane Ira, the airport/seaport “combo” could finish ahead of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge to rank seventh or behind Los Angeles International Airport to finish ninth.

Among the nation’s top 10 ports, two other “ports” have combined transportation modes in the data released by the Census Bureau after having been collected by Customs and Border Patrol — the Port of Newark and what appears to be Liberty International as well as the Port of Chicago and O’Hare International.

Many others are not, such as the Port of Los Angeles and LAX, JFK and the Port of New York, and the Port of Houston and Houston Intercontinental Airport, all of which are distinct entities.

I have been working with the Customs and Border Patrol for several months to try to see if these inconsistencies can be fixed.

At New Orleans, it means the “port’s” first-, third-, fifth and 10th-ranked exports largely or exclusively depart from at the Port of New Orleans while the second-, fourth-, sixth, seventh-, eighth- and ninth-ranked exports largely or exclusively depart from an airport, which might not be Louis Armstrong International, based on data on the airport’s website. At least one aviation expert told me UPS flights into Louisville, which is part of the larger “Customs district” are counted in New Orleans but I have not been able to confirm this.)

By the way, the colorful images above and below are for the monthly of June only while the charts are for the months of January through June, or year-to-date.

On the import side, the first-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and ninth-ranked imports fly while the second-, seventh-, eighth- and 10th-ranked imports sail from the seaport.

It’s a jumble but, by value, exports and imports are both led by the airport, not the seaport.

For the value of total exports this year, the seaport accounts for $16.99 billion while the airport accounts for $21.53 billion through June, the most recent data available. The value of airborne exports has been greater than the value from the seaport on an annualized basis since 2014.

On the import side, the value of airborne cargo this year is $18.11 while maritime cargo value is $10.28 billion. The value of cargo has been greater from the airport since at least 2003, on an annualized basis.

Within the trade community, the more common measure is either weight — since that is how both airports and seaports charge for their use — or, in the case of seaports, TEUs, or 20-foot-equivalent units, an antiquated measure of the containers that were once 20 feet in length.

But comparing airport and seaports that way skews the results heavily toward seaports, since heavy things sail and light things fly. That is why, in the two images above, the commodities listed where the Port of New Orleans ranks first nationally by tonnage are all commodities that sail.

Tonnage data also does not work with economic data used by governments to determine a wide range of statistics, from deficits to gross domestic product.

Through the month of June, the value of total trade at the “port” is up 12.53% on the year, compared to a U.S. average of 23.64%. When comparing to the first six months of 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic that hammered trade at most of the nation’s 450-plus airports, seaports and border crossings, port trade is up 3% while the national average is up 5.86%.

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