Inside the White House Push to Reopen Baltimore’s Harbor

(Bloomberg) --

Most Read from Bloomberg

Around 4 a.m. on March 26, the White House Situation Room notified Chief of Staff Jeff Zients that the unthinkable had happened: a container ship struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge, crashing a central highway artery into the bay and cutting off the Port of Baltimore, one of the largest shipping operations in the US.

That call touched off a frenzied effort to respond even before many Americans had woken to the news, with President Joe Biden mobilizing officials within hours. Early that afternoon, Biden would deliver remarks from the White House, urging authorities to “move heaven and Earth” to reopen the port, even as first responders searched for survivors in the Patapsco River’s waters.

Less than three months later, the 700-foot-wide and 50-foot-deep channel is clear of debris and the port fully reopen for operations, easing a major supply-chain crisis that threatened to imperil Biden’s reelection campaign by driving up the cost of consumer goods as voters confront already high prices. The Port of Baltimore handled $80 billion of goods in 2023, operating five public and 12 private terminals that move commodities and products like coal and automobiles.

A senior administration official detailed the White House response in the immediate hours after the container ship Dali destroyed the bridge, killing six people and halting traffic at one of the most important ports in the country, and over the weeks afterward as Biden’s team sought to grapple with a disaster with far-reaching implications for the American economy.

After receiving the phone call, Zients informed Biden of the bridge collapse. The president asked for a briefing. A few hours later, Zients assembled other senior officials, including his deputy, Natalie Quillian, Lael Brainard, the director of the National Economic Council, and Council of Economic Advisers Chair Jared Bernstein — indicating the economic significance of the port — in the Oval Office.

In those first hours, Biden would call elected officials and labor leaders and sign off on the Defense Department helping with the wreckage removal. White House staff contacted officials across the government to coordinate the response, beginning a process that saw them hold inter-agency calls twice a day at first to stay atop the situation, according to the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the internal conversations.

By midday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was on the scene to see the damage firsthand.

Biden delivered his first public remarks around 12:30 p.m., saying federal agencies would work with state and local officials and urging Congress to pay to rebuild the bridge.

“It’s going to take some time,” Biden said. “The people of Baltimore can count on us to stick with them at every step of the way until the port is reopened and the bridge is rebuilt.”

Economic Impact

“From the moment the president was briefed he was clear with all of us that we need to bring every level of government together,” said Quillian. The economic impact “drove a lot of our early moves,” she added, saying “we were very focused on the fact that the best way to get people back to work was to get the port open.”

Administration officials moved to head off economic fallout. The Department of Agriculture began assessing the impact on food that moved through Baltimore’s harbor, while the Energy Department looking at petroleum and coal supplies.

The National Economic Council convened its first meeting of a supply-chains task force to minimize disruptions with vessel traffic suspended into and out of the port. Brainard and Buttigieg met with labor groups and port industry leaders to discuss keeping supply chains flowing.

Biden during those early days received daily updates and as the situation improved continued to get frequent briefings, according to the official.

The president visited Baltimore to survey the wreckage for the first time on April 5, 10 days after the crash. In his remarks, he said Baltimore employers, including Inc., Home Depot Inc. and Domino Foods Inc., and companies relying on the port had agreed to keep jobs in the city.

Bridge Removal

The 1.4 mile Key Bridge, built in 1977, carried an estimated 11.5 million vehicles annually, with an average daily flow of 31,500.

As the administration dealt with the economic side, efforts were underway to begin clearing the bridge debris and the immobilized Dali. The US Coast Guard had established a “Unified Command” to take charge of removing steel and concrete debris from the channel.

Three days after the crash, a Chesapeake 1000 heavy-lift crane arrived in Baltimore. At its peak, Unified Command had more than 1,600 staff working, aided by 36 barges, 27 tugboats, 22 floating cranes, 10 excavators, one dredger, one skimmer, and 45 other vessels including a Coast Guard cutter, according to the official.

There were many milestones to reopening the channel, the official added. A key moment came on May 20, when the Dali was refloated and towed, clearing a major obstacle. The final piece of bridge truss was removed from the river on June 5.

Maryland Governor Wes Moore said that on the morning the bridge collapsed, “we were having conversations that this could take upwards of six, nine months — our ports director, people were telling him that this could take a year just to clear the federal channel.”

“By working together, we showed that we turned 11 months into 11 weeks,” he added.

Recovery Costs

Biden has committed to financing the rebuilding of the Key Bridge, expected to cost between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion and be completed by fall 2028, according to bond documents. But the State of Maryland may also be forced to dip further into its reserves.

To date, about $60 million of federal emergency relief funding has been approved by the highway administration for immediate needs. Maryland’s congressional delegation is lobbying to have federal funding provide 100% of eligible rebuilding costs.

“Baltimore can count on us to stick with them every step of the way, and we will continue to have your back until the bridge is rebuilt,” Biden said in a statement.

Moore has said all options, including private partnership and tapping capital markets, would be considered to finance reconstruction if the federal government is unable to cover costs as originally promised.

The senior official said requests for proposals have been sent and the rebuilding is moving faster compared to how infrastructure projects are traditionally handled.

“We know that the mission isn’t done until that bridge gets rebuilt,” Moore said Wednesday.

(Updates to add comments from Moore in paragraphs 19-20, 26)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.