‘Delays do not equal disruption’: Cargo bound for Hampton Roads rerouted amid Red Sea aggression, port says

Shipping companies with cargo bound for the East Coast are pivoting to a longer, alternate route as merchant vessels transiting the Red Sea are caught in the crosshairs of regional instability, officials say.

“But delays do not equal disruption,” said Joe Harris, spokesperson of the Virginia Port Authority.

Rather than traveling through the vital corridor of the Suez Canal, cargo is being diverted around Africa’s southern-most tip, the Cape of Good Hope, Harris told The Virginian-Pilot on Wednesday. The alternate route, he said, adds an extra 14 days to roundtrip voyages from Southeast Asia to the East Coast of the U.S.

“There has been no degradation of service at The Port of Virginia as it relates to the current events in the Red Sea,” Harris said. “The port is, however, keeping a close watch on the situation and we are in constant contact with our customers and the cargo owners using the port.”

In recent weeks, merchant vessels and military ships traveling through the Suez Canal have been the target of attack drones and anti-ship missiles launched from Houthi-controlled Yemen, U.S. military officials said. The Houthis had at times targeted ships in the region, but the attacks have increased since the start of the Oct. 7 Israel-Hamas war, the Associated Press reported.

A number of commercial ships have been struck since December, according to Associated Press reports, resulting in some damage but no deaths.

As hostility in the Red Sea continues, Harris said ocean carriers are making necessary adjustments to maintain capacity and minimize delays in service. Meanwhile, the Port of Virginia continues to service vessels, barges, trucks and railroads as normal.

“In short, the industry will settle into a new pattern that will ensure the flow of cargo continues,” Harris said.

The Virginia Port Authority manages the third-largest container port on the East Coast, operating five marine terminals and one inland rail port. Of those, four marine terminals are located in Hampton Roads, including in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News.

“From a cargo perspective, our volumes — both export and import — are very normal and they aren’t showing signs of a drop-off,” Harris said.

Harris echoed the Jan. 17 testimony of Stephen Edwards, CEO of Virginia Port Authority, who presented a “state of transportation” to the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The attacks, Edwards told Congress, initially disrupted schedules for cargo coming out of Asia. This initial disruption included the need for fueling in South Africa, discharge of Mediterranean cargoes in Western Mediterranean ports rather than the Eastern Mediterranean and overall longer transits. The other impact has been a delay in the return of container supply to Asia.

But fuel prices have not increased, Edwards said. This is important because fuel costs associated with the longer voyage are offset by the decrease in Suez Canal fees, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This means cargo coming to the East Coast from Asia do not automatically have an increased cost, Edwards said.

“Protecting freedom of navigation in all waters is a requirement of free and fair global trade. On behalf of The Port of Virginia and my colleagues, I recognize the extraordinary service of our men and women in the military who are active in the Red Sea, many of whom are deployed from our port,” Edwards said.

U.S. forces continue to respond and reported launching strikes against Houthi targets on Monday. In mid-January, Hampton Roads warships were part of joint strikes coordinated with the United Kingdom on Houthi radar systems, air defense systems and storage and launch sites, military officials said. The firepower was brought by F/A-18 Super Hornets from Norfolk-based USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and Norfolk-based destroyers USS Gravely and USS Laboon along with USS Mason of Mayport and the United Kingdom’s HMS Diamond.

Earlier this month, Sen. Tim Kaine said in a statement he had heard concerns from the Port of Virginia about potential impacts to the commonwealth. Speaking with reporters Wednesday in a video conference call, Kaine said he is concerned that continued hostility in the Middle East will drive up consumer prices.

“I’m hearing from the commercial side and I’m hearing from our military families,” Kaine said. “All of it suggests that the U.S. should be focused on de-escalation.”

Caitlyn Burchett, caitlyn.burchett@virginiamedia.com