When Savannah welcomed the largest cargo ship ever to call on its booming seaport, the visiting vessel barely fit. The Figaro had to sail in loaded at half capacity to avoid scraping the river bottom, and even then could only navigate the shallow channel at high tide.
East Coast ports from New York to Miami simply aren't deep enough to handle such mammoth vessels as the CMA CGM Figaro, which measures 1,100 feet long with space for 8,500 cargo containers a tractor-trailer can haul one at a time. With a major expansion of the Panama Canal projected to be finished by the end of 2014, these gargantuan vessels will be able to sail between Asia and the U.S. East Coast.
The canal expansion is pitting seaports up and down the Atlantic coast in a race to dig deeper harbors capable of handling the so-called post-Panamax ships.
"It's going to almost triple the size of the vessels that are going to be able to transit the canal," said Kurt J. Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities. "I don't think it's overhyped to say it's a gamechanger."
The post-Panamax ships require depths of up to 50 feet of water to navigate when fully loaded. Only one East Coast seaport - Norfolk, Va. - is that deep. Other ports are scrambling for federal permits and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to scrape and suck tons of sand and mud from their bays and river bottoms.