How Coronavirus Is Impacting Traffic Through The Port Of Los Angeles NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, about the impact of coronavirus on West Coast ports.

How Coronavirus Is Impacting Traffic Through The Port Of Los Angeles

How Coronavirus Is Impacting Traffic Through The Port Of Los Angeles

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NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, about the impact of coronavirus on West Coast ports.


The coronavirus epidemic started in China. And today California is one of the hot spots in the U.S. We're going to talk now with someone who oversees a key connection point between those two places. Gene Seroka is executive director of the Port of Los Angeles. More than $275 billion worth of goods flowed through that port last year, and he's here to tell us about what's different today.


GENE SEROKA: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I understand you're in an office on the fifth floor, overlooking the port. If you look out the window, how does what you see today differ from what you might have seen at this time a year ago?

SEROKA: The activity is a lot slower than normal. We've had 41 vessels canceled thus far from middle of February through April 1. That represents about 25% of our normal ship calls during that time frame.

SHAPIRO: Twenty-five percent - wow, OK.

SEROKA: Yeah, it's important because 1 in 9 jobs in Southern California are tied to this port. That's more than a million people that go to work every day reliant on the cargo that moves through our facilities here.

SHAPIRO: OK, so if your incoming is down by 25%, what does that mean for the people who work at the port?

SEROKA: It means the jobs are down. Our longshore work is down about a third, compared to the normal time frame that cargo would be flowing here. Truck drivers are pulling less freight. All the folks associated with this supply chain are working less right now.

SHAPIRO: And is the reduction in both directions? - because I could imagine lower demand from China for U.S. exports and also reduced production from China, where factory workers may be staying home.

SEROKA: That's right. And the slowdown even predates the coronavirus public health crisis that we witness today. The ill-advised trade policies coming out of Washington created an environment where we front-loaded a lot of inventory that came into the U.S., so our warehouses were pretty full. Looking back, it appears that has helped us thus far...


SEROKA: ...Because we have not seen many shortages in the pipeline, whether it be at the store or online where you and I buy. So that's a positive. But on the export side of the business, we witnessed 14 consecutive months of declining exports on the heels of retaliatory tariffs based on the policies coming out of Washington. Now...

SHAPIRO: So it's a one-two punch of the tariffs and the coronavirus.

SEROKA: That's exactly right. And as we sit here today looking at the port, we're seeing empty containers pile up and exports being stranded until vessel calls will resume here at the Port of Los Angeles.

SHAPIRO: I know you deal with everything from produce to car parts. Are there certain kinds of goods where you're seeing a bigger shift or higher stakes because the products are perishable?

SEROKA: Well, that's exactly the point. What we're trying to do as an ecosystem in the supply chain is push out the perishable commodities as quickly as possible, highlighting them to the liner shipping companies to the ports overseas in China and elsewhere to make sure that we can get those products to the customers.

SHAPIRO: This is not your first public health crisis. I know you were in Shanghai during the SARS outbreak. How would you compare those?

SEROKA: I can remember back in my days in Shanghai, where I was responsible for some 26 offices throughout the country. We were grounded. There was no domestic or international travel. The information that came out was not nearly as good as we would have liked to see at that time. This is much bigger.

SHAPIRO: Much bigger.

SEROKA: But being on the ground at that time, I can understand the concern, the fear. And putting the public health crisis first to curb the illness and eradicate this virus should be a global concern in the medical and philanthropic communities today.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a sense of the trend lines? - because while infection rates are growing in parts of the United States, they seem to be slowing down in parts of China. What's the latest?

SEROKA: Yeah, we're watching that very closely. And our contacts on the ground, who we've known for decades, are starting to see more factory workers come in for work. But that ramp-up is going to take some time to get back to a normal level of production that we would see heading into the latter part of March.

SHAPIRO: That's Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.

Thank you for talking with us.

SEROKA: Thank you, Ari.

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