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updated 9/8/2005 3:29:34 PM ET 2005-09-08T19:29:34

The docks in Morehead City are booming this week, as longshoremen unload twice the amount of rubber that normally passes through the port. The same is true down the coast in Wilmington, where 12,000 tons of steel came off the boat Wednesday.

The Port of Pensacola in Florida has increased cargo traffic by about 60 percent and companies are calling to see how much more steel, lumber and other products it can handle. Panama City, Fla., expects a 60 to 70 percent increase this year.

"I've been here eight years and I've never seen this level of activity before," Pensacola port director Leon Walker said.

None of those four ports rank in the country's top 40 by tonnage, but they are receiving cargo once headed for New Orleans or Pascagoula and Gulfport, Miss., before Hurricane Katrina swept through, damaging ports and forcing shippers to divert to docks elsewhere along the Gulf and East coasts. New Orleans is believed to be just weeks away from reopening, but there's no guess when the two Mississippi ports may again operate.

The extra workload has taxed some ports. Panama City has turned away cargo it's not equipped to handle and for the first time is accommodating small container ships that carry textiles to Mexico and return with finished products, ports executive director Wayne Stubbs said Thursday. The port is also handling many of the forest products previously exported through Pascagoula, he said.

Ports at Houston, and Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa, Fla., also will probably see cargo once destined for storm-ravaged docks, said Aaron Ellis, spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities.

In Tampa and at the Virginia ports of Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth, shipping companies have asked about making deliveries of fresh produce, frozen poultry, rubber, plywood and other products.

"Our phones are very busy," said Tampa Port Authority spokeswoman Lori Musser, adding that it's too soon to report a big jump in traffic.

Fruit companies Chiquita Brands Inc. and Dole Food Co. used Gulfport for banana shipments into the United States, but have diverted to Freeport, Texas and Port Everglades, near Fort Lauderdale.

Other ports may also see increases in specific types of freight, depending on their capability to unload, store and distribute it at the lowest cost, Ellis said.

North Carolina's state-run ports — Morehead City at the south end of the Outer Banks and Wilmington near the South Carolina border — compete with New Orleans for the rubber, steel and lumber they handle most often, ports authority spokeswoman Karen Fox said.

Morehead City trails only New Orleans in imports of natural rubber used in tire manufacturing. Dockworkers expect to load more than 250 trucks this week for the port's biggest customer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., twice as much as usual.

The disaster on the Gulf Coast meant the world's No. 3 tire company restructured its supply chain so that rubber diverted to North Carolina docks can reach tire plants as far away as Lawton, Okla.; Topeka, Kan., and Tyler, Texas, spokesman Keith Price said.

"I would expect that the additional shipping that we have to do will increase our cost," Price said, but "we aren't able to forecast or estimate where pricing might be in the future."

Two ships scheduled to leave a portion of their rubber cargo in North Carolina before going on to New Orleans were forced to push off their entire shipments of more than 24,000 tons each at Morehead City. That's a quarter of the port's rubber tonnage for all of last year.

The Panama-flagged Bright Laker skipped a stop in New Orleans to chug on to Wilmington, where it arrived Wednesday with 12,000 tons of wire rod used in steel-belted tires and steel coils for auto bodies, Fox said.

The ship's Tokyo-based owner decided only Tuesday to dock in Wilmington, where the load will be distributed, said the Bright Laker's agent in port, Rodger Gore of Inchcape Shipping Services.

But while some ship owners and operators have quickly made arrangements for their cargo, others are weighing diversion against waiting for New Orleans or another particular port to reopen.

They must consider the value of the cargo, its perishability and whether manufacturing plants are counting on timely delivery, Ellis said. Some shippers will choose to pay more to ship via air, as they did in 2002 when labor unrest closed ports along the West Coast, he said.

"We do have a system of ports and thank God for that," Ellis said. "If one part of the system goes down, there are alternatives so that we as consumers are not dependent on goods moving through one port."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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