Retailers have returned to regular restocking patterns – cargo volumes are growing.

It can now be said that the Port of New York and New Jersey has entered a post-COVID period. The port finished 2023 with volume totals that exceeded 2019’s pre-COVID numbers by 4.4%, with the port’s yearly total coming in at 7.8 million TEU.

The seaport continued as the second busiest in the nation for loaded imports and exports, a mark it first achieved in 2022, when it surpassed the Port of Long Beach.

Shippers, terminal operators, and logistics providers now have some “breathing room,” said Port Director Bethann Rooney, to prepare for the future previewed during the pandemic, when cargo growth accelerated beyond expectations. “We’re exactly where all of the forecasts indicated that we were going to be,” Rooney told a State of the Port gathering in Jersey City earlier this year. “We’ve had a look at what our future is like, and we have six or seven years to prepare to handle that volume again.” Port volumes took a hit in the early part of 2023 as retailers emptied warehouses overstocked with inventories accumulated during the pandemic.

Last year “allowed everybody, terminal operators, trucking companies, and others, the opportunity to continue to build out capacity and build out relationships,” Rooney added. “The confidence that our customers collectively have in the business and service we provide here is very, very positive.”

As the bloated warehouses reduce their inventories, retailers are returning to a regular restocking rhythm, according to Rooney. Cargo volumes have continued to grow in 2024.

The port handled 667,346 TEUs in January, outpacing January 2019 by 7.2% and January 2023 by 3.4%. January 2024’s volume was also 5.3% above December 2023 figures.

In February, the port posted volume gains across imports, exports, and autos, making it the second-busiest February in its history. February’s volume of 632,455 TEUs represented a 10.7% increase compared to February 2023, as imports rose by 15.2% year over year and exports increased by 3%.

During the first two months of 2024, the port moved 1.3 million TEU. Autos rose by 14.5% during January and February and rail volume also increased, by 7.1%.

The port is not without its challenges, and one of the big ones this year could be the ongoing drought in Panama. The Central American country is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history, with water levels falling to critical lows in Gatun Lake, which feeds into the canal.

In response, Panamanian authorities have reduced the number of daily transits through the canal. According to a recent report from S&P Global, an average of 27 vessels moved through the canal daily in March, as compared to 40 transits per day when water levels are normal. “Container ships are given priority to book slots,” the report noted, which could account for why the drought has yet to take a toll on the port’s volumes.

But it’s hard to say how long that situation will prevail, which is why Rooney exhorted her audience at the State of the Port to “pray for rain in Panama.”