Miami-Dade has been central to relief efforts in Haiti as Miami-based shippers know Haiti's ports, access points
By Shearon Roberts
US relief organizations have turned to Miami-based Haiti shipping companies to get relief goods into Haiti and to kick-start the devastated economy.
The earthquake left the main port at Port-au-Prince inoperable, and aftershocks collapsed the port's seawall. Since Miami River shipping firms have dominated use of the country's small, outlying ports for decades, many larger shipping firms have had to follow this lead to get much-needed increased aid to victims.
"The Miami River is the lifeline of the shallow ports," said Munir Mourra, president of River Terminal Services, a Haiti shipping company based on the river. Before the earthquake, 90% of vessel activity at Haiti's outlying ports came from Miami River firms, Mr. Mourra said.
"Most of the nonprofits had sent goods through the bottleneck existing in Port-au-Prince or trucking it over through the Dominican Republic," Mr. Mourra said.
"Nobody is recognizing that besides Port-au-Prince there is the rest of the country," he said. "Port-au-Prince is down to its knees. We shouldn't cut off the rest of the country, bringing it entirely to its knees."
Mr. Mourra, who also chairs the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce in South Florida, said his firm and many Miami River shipping companies operate via the smaller ports at Miragoine and Cap-Haitien. From these ports, he said, these firms have better access to cities low on resources outside the Haitian capital.
The earthquake also spared facilities and resources at these outlying ports, added Richard Dubin, vice president of Miami-River based Haiti Shipping Lines, who also runs a container terminal at Cap-Haitien. Relief goods sent by US families to relatives in Haiti are moving freely from these ports to areas outside the capital, he said.
Given the damage to homes and infrastructure in Port-au-Prince, 30 to 60 busloads of people are relocating weekly from the capital to these outlying areas, Mr. Dubin said. This shifts demand for where the relief aid is needed in the weeks and months to come.
"Most of the companies that ship from the river go to the outlying cities, and right now there are no delays from Cap-Haitien," Mr. Dubin said. "Anything that has to go to an NGO [non-governmental organization] or legitimate relief organization is going straight through."
Sante Shipping Lines, a new Haiti shipping firm started last November on the Miami River, is also able to resume cargo shipments to Haiti because it too operates out of the outlying ports at Cap-Haitien and Gonaives.
"There's a lot of efforts by the US government to set up a temporary pier facility [at Port-au-Prince] that could be up in the next few weeks," said Bruno Ramos, Sante's CEO and chairman. "In the meantime, you still have to ship through these smaller ports."
In April, the new company will follow through with its original plans to expand shipping to smaller ports such as Port-de-Paix, Saint-Marc and Miragoane, among others, said Charles "Chuck" Towsley, Sante's president and former director of the Port of Miami. The company remains committed to its focus on shipping to Haiti, particularly given the long-term need for alternative entry points outside of Port-au-Prince, Mr. Towsley said.
"It's certainly a long way from business as usual," he said. "The ports are really stressed with limited resources. But the need is there, and there will be a shift from relief cargo to redevelopment cargo. We're starting to see an interest in those types of cargo now."
On the other hand, larger shipping firms have had to make major shipping adjustments. Seaboard Marine and Crowley Maritime Corp.'s liner services had to devise makeshift solutions in order to resume shipments to Haiti toward the end of January.
In Seaboard's case, the company's Haiti contacts coordinated the use of a wharf and facility space used by a destroyed flourmill company at Lafiteau, 10 miles north of Port-au-Prince, said Bruce Brecheisen, Seaboard's senior vice president.
Seaboard sends two shipments a week from Miami and one from Brooklyn to its Kingston, Jamaica, terminal. Then, Seaboard ferries its shipments across to Haiti with the one vessel in its fleet that can best navigate the temporary terminal at Lafiteau.
"Previously we had weekly service going in to Port-au-Prince carrying commercial goods," Mr. Brecheisen said. "Now we've resumed and we've had four sailings to Haiti since the earthquake, with Kingston as the relay point."
Crowley, which ceased its direct shipments to Port-au-Prince given the port's damage, has used a three-way approach to getting its relief goods in for a US Transportation Command [USTRANSCOM] contract, said Jenifer Kimble, a Crowley spokeswoman.
The company first trucked goods over from shipments sent via Rio Haina in the Dominican Republic. Then Crowley conducted a lightering operation, moving containers off its larger vessel to smaller, shallow-draft ships that can land at a beach near Port-of-Prince.
This month, the company is to dock two 400-foot-long, 100-foot-wide flat deck barges to serve as a makeshift pier for vessels. The company has also sent divers to survey the Port-au-Prince terminal for areas still intact to offload cargo.
"It's a slower process, but we are able to move the goods through other means to Port-of-Prince," Ms. Kimble said. "We are absolutely committed to this and our focus is on relief supplies at this time and getting to the relief groups what they need."