By the dawn’s early light on March 26, we all saw that the Francis Scott Key Bridge had lost its perilous fight with the Maersk Dali. And then we viewed countless videos of the violent carnage, somehow almost graceful, surely caused by bombs bursting in air and not a bump from a boat!

Our second response was that this was certainly a hoax, a child’s trick using an erector set (do they still exist?) in a bathtub, right?  Or was this the work of Russia, Iran, North Korea, or our new friends in Yemen? Fake news intended to frighten us?  No.

The realities gave proof through that first night and day.  This horror was all too real.

How did the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse?

A vessel weighing more than a 20-story building, heavier than 1 million NFL football players, crushed a bridge pillar setting off a disastrous chain reaction. In their illustrious 28-year history, the Ravens have put about 1000 players on the field; it would take almost 300,000 years to collect one million Ravens to compete with the sheer bulk of the Maersk Dali.

Shapiro is proud to call Baltimore home for 109 years, and we know a few folks by now.  So, the messages first came by phone, by text, by email, by Teams, by Linked-In, and by pony express.  Was Shapiro’s flag still there?  Is everyone okay?  How many motorists perished? Was this all real?

After these heartfelt and almost primal inquiries, I expected to be asked about some of the following:

Are all terminals affected?

What will happen to the containers on port?

How many unladen vessels?                                   

What is the trucking rate from Norfolk?

How much will the repair cost?                             

How quickly can the debris be removed?

Was that bridge safe?                                                 

Local road congestion realities?

Instead, I kept hearing versions of “is the sky falling, Rob?”  Is the sky falling for the world, for the international supply chain, for Baltimore?

While I can’t begin to guess about the world’s fate (though I pray we remain the “land of the free”), I can give it a college try for the supply chain and for Charm City.

Okay, since 2017 more than 50 bridges have collapsed worldwide, Hanjin failed, labor unrest has steadily increased globally and in the US, the Ever Given put our business on the map, COVID changed ALL the rules for two years, the Panama Canal got thirsty, and the Houthis have entered our vocabulary by taking aim at anything that floats in the Red Sea.  Frankly, my list here is astonishingly incomplete especially if we add the alarming violence of Mother Nature to the mix.

However, we must note that human ingenuity, determination, and genius is on full display with even a casual glimpse at the global supply chain. The Maersk Dali holds 10,000 TEUs of cargo and is less than half the size of the largest of mega vessels!  Rail transport in many countries whizzes by at over 200mph.  Manufacturing has never been more creative or systematic. Port equipment is not only energy efficient but “smarter” than ever.  The distribution centers of today are absolute miracles of design and ingenuity. And, all the while, supply chains emit less sulfur and have begun to tackle our giant carbon problem (perhaps too sluggishly, but steadily).

Assessing Supply Chain Reactions

We are in the presence of unbelievable feats of engineering and human potential every single day. And I like to think that the human beings supporting global supply chains have never been more versatile, innovative, and connected.  We are harnessing the powers of technology in more and more sophisticated ways on what feels like an hourly basis. The pace of change may be daunting, but it is also intensely inspiring if you take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture.

This leaves us with the final question, “is the sky falling for Baltimore?”

Let’s start with the Francis Scott Key Bridge itself. The bridge was not just a visual stunner, but it was a true wonder of engineering.  It was the third longest continuous truss bridge on the planet, it took five years to build, 32,000 vehicles crossed it per day, and the full length of the construction was 1.6 miles.  Bridge nerds have their rules, so only 15% of the bridge’s length counts as a truss.  Today, the bridge looks like the ramparts o’er which Scott Key jotted notes, but the history is a proud one.

While we remember the rockets’ red glare over Fort McHenry, there was a notable lack of “red glares” on the bridge when it collapsed. We are devastated for the loss of the six construction workers, and we ache for their families; but local pilots called out the mayday, and the Maryland DOT blocked access to the bridge with lightning speed.  The first vessel power loss was but five minutes before impact.  If it had occurred at rush hour with no mayday, we might well be talking about hundreds of deaths.

Let’s move on to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Written in Baltimore in 1814, our national anthem is all about the strength, courage, and the resiliency of Baltimoreans.  Full stop. Francis Scott Key’s character has been challenged since he owned slaves, but his poem is an undiluted tribute to the great city of Baltimore.

When the great Key Bridge accepted her first vehicle in 1977, Baltimore City was still almost one million souls with about 70% of the total local population still in the city vs. the suburbs and surrounding areas. By 1980, the population of the city was down 17% from 1950’s peak.  Today, we are down 40%. Yet, all the while the suburbs and surrounding areas have grown in population; the city is just over 20% of the area’s population today.  Like it or not, we have been and are still abandoning Baltimore City.

Why?  Well, a lowly forwarder with his modest margins ought to be careful here!  Some people think the fate of the city was sealed when Maryland abandoned Baltimore and made her an independent city in 1851 (Charm City is still the nation’s largest independent city). Others may point to the creation of an expressway that separated the city, or to several recessions and at least four drug epidemics and counting.  Some of the brave from the home of the brave believe that racism continues to play its pernicious part.   

Yet today, we see so many signs of a vibrant eclectic population and culture from the arts to cuisine, to state and local government.  And, all the while, Baltimore’s port has served up so much human variety and influence as to make Baltimore a poster child for America’s claim of “melting pot.”

Because Baltimoreans are proud, I shouldn’t risk this, but one easily finds the established splendors of African, German, Polish, Greek, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian (!), and Russian cultures among many others.  Recent immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East only add to the diversity and deep flavors of this melting pot.

Let’s drill down a little more and mention that the supply chain professionals in this region, those who are the heart and soul of Baltimore’s maritime identity, are a remarkable bunch of people.  They say it takes a village, and we are a vocal, engaged, and caring village to say the least!  From the dock workers at the port of Baltimore to the truckers and warehousemen to the railroads to the bridge repairmen to the shippers to the port executives to the AMAZING brokers and forwarders, to the government officials to the countless specialists like harbor pilots, to Michele Nickoles (yeah, I said it!), this is a remarkable community, an exceptional village!

This is NOT the twilight’s last gleaming for Baltimore.  We have the broad stripes of an ethnic melting pot since 1729, and the bright stars to revive our vital role in global supply chains. We must remember to be very proud indeed from where we hail. We proudly hail from Baltimore, people!

Oh say, can you see a revitalized Baltimore, courageous and proud? Yes.  Oh say, can you see a city and a port that is greater as a whole than the pieces we represent?  Hell Yes!  We are gallantly streaming to a better future, and we are doing this as a family, as a village, and as a great city.