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Baltimore port workers are ‘living in a dream’ as harbor remains blocked

Dino Martinez, a tugboat captain in Baltimore’s harbor, feels as if he’s “living in a dream” since the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sent a shock wave of fear and uncertainty through thousands of workers who rely on the port for their livelihoods.

But on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the bridge tumbled into the Patapsco River, Martinez could whip out of his cellphone and see that help was on the way. Using a mobile telephone app that monitors maritime traffic, Martinez identified specialized engineering ships already sailing up Chesapeake Bay, the first steps in what will be a long process to clear debris from the shipping channel and get one of country’s busiest ports back online.

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“Right now, the Port of Baltimore is totally closed, and there is really no time frame that you can put on it being reopened,” Martinez said as he sipped his beer at a dive bar in Sparrows Point, Md. “I feel sorry for everybody. Everyone is greatly affected by this situation … But help is on the way, and I think it’s going to be okay.”

Throughout working-class neighborhoods that hug the shoreline of the Patapsco River in southeastern Baltimore County, scores of workers are now trying to make similar calculations about how long they may be out work. Already, rumors are flying between bar stools and community chat groups that layoffs may be imminent as more than 8,000 men and women have jobs directly tied to the Port of Baltimore.

Yet, amid a pledge from President Biden and administration officials that a massive infusion of federal help is on the way, there is now cautious optimism that operations at the port will resume before it really decimates workers’ livelihoods.

At the White House on Wednesday, both Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter W. Gautier said reopening the shipping channel and the port are now the key focus of the nation’s recovery efforts. Between $100 million to $200 million in goods come through every day and at least $2 million in wages are at stake every day the port is closed, officials said.

“The Coast Guard highest priority now is restoring the waterway for shipping, stabilizing the motor vessel Dali, and removing it from the site,” Gautier said.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) echoed federal officials, saying in a news conference this week that reopening the port was now the state’s top priority. On Thursday, the state requested an initial payment of $60 million for early recovery and clean up as Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told The Washington Post that federal aid could be on the way within days.

“I do not know what the total costs are going to be. I do not yet know what the full timeline is going to be,” Moore said. “But the thing that I do know is that the task in front of us, it will be real and it will be daunting. Despite this task ahead of being daunting, I can tell you right now our resolve is unshaken. We will get to completion. We will do it together.”

In the coming days, assets from the U.S. Navy are expected to arrive in Baltimore to examine how the waterways can be reopened. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also announced it plans to deploy 1,100 engineers and specialists to help with recovery efforts.

Efforts are also underway to ship in large cranes and other heavy equipment to begin pulling apart the debris once the National Safety Transportation Board completes the initial phase of its investigation. The first wave of the equipment arrived near the accident scene in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday.

“They have already started turning the wheels on the salvage” operation, said Martinez, who expects his tugboat will be used to help position cranes and salvage equipment in the water. “They are getting bids on what it will cost and how it will get done.”

But throughout southeastern Baltimore County, where many longshoremen reside, there remains considerable unease as people wonder how long they may be out work.

Many longshoremen and other port workers frequently gather at a bar in Sparrows Point called the Muddy Beaver. The bar traces its roots back to 1934, when up to 30,000 local residents used to work at the now shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant. The steelworkers would cash their paychecks at a neighboring store and then walk over to the bar and crack open a beer.

The Muddy Beaver, where taxidermy lines the walls, is still known for opening at 7 a.m. to accommodate shift workers. It also has one of Baltimore County’s oldest and most lenient liquor licenses - patrons joke they are even allowed to pour their own shots behind the bar.

On Wednesday afternoon, when about a dozen men including Martinez were already seated the bar, Darlene Chance, 72, brought in canned goods from a local food bank. Chance, who has family who works at the port, said the community is already bracing for the possibility that there could be widespread layoffs if the port does not reopen soon.

“I definitely think a lot of them longshoremen will be laid off,” Chance said. “But I really think we will be fine and survive because we are a tough community, and a very strong community, and we will all work together here to get through this.”

One man at the bar said his son is a longshoreman at the port, but he asked not to be identified by name because he and his son share the same name. The man had just gotten off the phone with this son, who told him union leaders are already guiding employees on how they can file unemployment assistance claims.

“I said, ‘Son, you are going to be out of work through no fault of your own,’” the man said. “But I told him to him to get ready, because when this is cleared up, you better bring a sleeping bag [to work] because there will be so much work you won’t be able to get out of the port. It’s only a matter of time.”

Scott Cowan, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333, confirmed that union leaders are already coaching members through the unemployment process including setting up a dedicated telephone line offering advice. Cowan said 85 percent of his members are “daily hires” who only get paid “when a ship is in” dock.

“So we are waiting, and feel like we are out here in limbo, but we feel we are going to get through this, said Cowan, who noted that port has been operational for centuries and has had a unionized workforce since the 1880s. “We are going to keep on trucking forward.”

At the Muddy Beaver, the sense of optimism that the region’s struggles will be relatively short-lived is driven by their belief that the nation - and the world - cannot live without the Port of Baltimore. They note the port is a national leader for imports of automobiles, sugar and farm equipment and for exporting coal.

“The port will survive. They are not going to eliminate the port,” said Matt Temple, 51. “It’s just going to be a matter of how long it takes and who will pay for it.”

But after he finished shift as longshoreman at Consol Energy’s coal yard at the Port of Baltimore, David Brothel isn’t sure he and his colleagues can survive a port closure that lasts more than a few months.

“I know most of my colleagues are worried that the government is not going to step up and do what they say they are going to do, as quickly and speedy as they say they are going to do,” Brothel, 40, said as he was passing through Sparrows Point on Wednesday. “I don’t think it is going to happen as fast as they say.”

What’s at stake, Brothel says, is well-paying jobs that drive the economies of communities throughout the East Coast. Some longshoremen make close to $200,000 a year working up to 70 hours a week, Brothel said.

If ships can’t collect the coal, Brothel said there will be a cascading impact on jobs at the coal mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“Once our yards are full, you can’t bring anymore in,” said Brothel. “So that stops all production up north, and unless they can stockpile that coal somewhere else, they can’t dig any more out of the ground.”

Brothel said a similar supply blockage occurred during the pandemic, when Consol’s coal yard went a month or two without accommodating new trains or ships.

For now, however, Brothel plans to just buckle in and wait it out. But he said the clock was already ticking.

“I know I can last three months,” he said. “But if this doesn’t clear up in three months, I may have to transfer to be a longshoreman in another state - maybe Texas, maybe Florida.”

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