The aftermath of January's Haitian earthquake dramatized an obvious but largely forgotten feature of the global maritime trade system: the uniqueness and vulnerability of container port facilities.
Naval strategists point out again and again that shipping can and does deliver masses of material far more efficiently than airplanes. Yet accounts of earthquake relief refer mainly to the problem of traffic control at the main Haitian airport. What about sea traffic?
The quake destroyed the container facilities at Port-au-Prince. It did not destroy the port itself, in the sense that the water area remained sheltered, and ships could still enter. It knocked down the gantries used to unload containers and threw the wreckage into the sea. It is not clear how long it will take to construct a new container facility. Without the gantries, container ships cannot unload. The alternatives to containers, roll-on/roll-off vessels (Ro-Ros) and barge carriers, exist in small numbers and presumably are not immediately available. It may also be difficult for a Ro-Ro to get close enough to a pier to put down her ramp.