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In wake of Baltimore bridge collapse, Florida ports council head talks about safety

Port Canaveral handles cargo ships on Florida’s east coast. Port safety is “a continuing investment that we work with the Army Corps of Engineers,” says the state’s ports council chief.

Posted on April 15, 2024

Two weeks after a container ship collided with a bridge and shut down the Port of Baltimore, effects continue to ripple through the maritime industry.

Meanwhile, cargo and cruise-ship traffic hit record highs last year at Florida ports.

The News Service has five questions for Michael Rubin, president and CEO of the Florida Ports Council:

Q: After the Baltimore collision, are you looking at all the Florida ports for how ships come in and out to ensure safety and security?

RUBIN: It’s a continuing investment that we work with the (U.S.) Army Corps of Engineers. Some of our channels, obviously, there’s a bridge in Tampa, which had a similar incident over 40 years ago. And then there’s a bridge in Jacksonville, where some of the smaller cargo vessels go underneath. So, it’s a continual review by, you know, the (harbor) pilots into that. The pilots do a great job of making sure those vessels stay on line and on track coming through those navigational harbors if there’s a bridge there. Obviously, it’s a difficult lesson and you hope you don’t have — and I feel for those six families (of people who died in Baltimore) — and you hope you don’t have any significant loss of life in those. But it’s one of those hard lessons you learn. We learned that in Tampa several years ago. We learned through hurricanes, sometimes those (storms) deposit items into a channel that you have to get out of there. So, it’s just an ongoing (issue) dealing with all that. There’s a continuing harbor maintenance effort at every one of our seaports with the Army Corps to make sure that channel is clear and usable. There was the discussion down in Miami at the congressional meeting (Friday), there was a ferry that had an issue at the Port of Miami, I think it was in the water for quite a bit and they managed to get it out and get around it. So, those kinds of issues happen all the time. It’s just a matter of certainly having the Army Corps and everybody else working together to keep it clear.

Q: You mentioned a congressional hearing Friday in Miami with the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee and the Homeland Security Committee’s Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee. What’s the biggest threat to Florida ports and what steps are being taken?

RUBIN: Our threats remain heavy weather. And we’re getting into that season again. Obviously, it’s an annual thing. And all of our ports have had heavy-weather committees that are comprised of the seaports, the tenants, (the U.S.) Coast Guard and everybody in getting ready to plan. And it’s an ongoing planning effort to keep that port not only resilient and open, but, you know, making sure that it’s ready for that heavy weather when it comes around. So, that remains a constant issue at our seaports. And, you know, certainly, fuel is obviously a significant issue every year. And we work together as a system of seaports. And we have several seaports that handle fuel. Hopefully, we don’t have a hurricane that goes up the middle of the state and closes all of our ports at the same time. We’ve had that. But certainly, we prepare and get ready. You know, the governor’s office, obviously Gov. (Ron) DeSantis and his, Kevin Guthrie (director) at the Division of Emergency Management, does a fantastic job. And so does our partners at DOT (the Florida Department of Transportation) responding to it. So, we plan and prepare every year for hurricane heavy weather. And that remains the biggest issue that I see.

Q: Concerns were raised at that conference about cybersecurity threats. What steps are being taken?

RUBIN: Yes, obviously, cybersecurity continues to grow every year with all sorts of craziness out there. And certainly, it’s been a significant issue for 10 years or so now. … We first had the Maritime Transportation Security Act after 9/11. And it was all about physical security issues. And a lot of money was spent around the state on the federal side shoring up ingress and egress, fencing, gates, checkpoints, police force. And so, a lot of it was spent there. And now the issue, really the foremost issue on some of that stuff, is do you have a cybersecurity plan in place. Every terminal, every vessel, obviously, all of our port authorities have a cybersecurity plan in place. And they work together with the Coast Guard to make sure that we have adequate protections or whatever they may be. And any threats that are recognized out there are usually transmitted by the Coast Guard to the Florida seaports, terminals and vessels. So, it’s an ongoing issue. It seems like there’s always some state actor, whether it’s China or North Korea or whatever, that they keep doing that. So, it’s an ongoing preparation in making sure you’re prepared for the latest craziness.

Q: Supply chain issues don’t seem as dramatic as they were coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. What steps are being taken to maintain the record cargo and cruise numbers posted last year in Florida?

RUBIN: The cargo industry, the maritime industry around the world is slow to change. But I think a number of them saw that, “Hey, I need to look at the East Coast of the United States and the Gulf Coast. And we have ports on both the East Coast side and the Gulf Coast. And both of them have seen a growth. I saw today (Monday) that Jacksonville got another line that’s going to stop at JaxPort. So, they continue to grow.

Q: You got a favorable ruling last year as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service denied a requested “vessel slowdown zone” in waters used by endangered Rice’s whales off Florida’s Gulf Coast. Another issue is endangered North Atlantic right whales, which migrate to waters off the Atlantic coast. What is the council’s position on the federal North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strike Reduction Rule?

RUBIN: The good news is I think Congress has told the Biden administration, “You need to talk to the maritime industry instead of trying to impose a rule without talking to them.” Both of those issues are talking about a slowdown (of ship speeds), which is difficult. … We know where these trade lines are. And there ought to be a way to use technology to make sure that we protect not only the whales but also, you know, protect that industry. And it’s a matter of … getting that cargo and product to the citizens of the United States. And, look, we realize that there’s some whales out there and I won’t go into what I think really is some, well, I’ll use the term junk science being used out there by some environmental groups that are just looking to shut down oil and shut down all cargo coming through the Gulf Coast. And they really haven’t done a very good job on that. So, we’ll continue to work with NOAA and hopefully we can work together to come up with something that does both (for right whales).


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