The impact of the Baltimore bridge disaster

Editor’s note (March 27th): Police in Maryland said that the six people who remain missing following the Key bridge’s collapse are now presumed dead.

THE VIDEO footage of the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge was shocking. At around 1.30am on March 26th, when a container ship rammed into it, the central section of the 1.6-mile (2.6km) structure collapsed into the Patapsco river below, sending people and vehicles into the water. Workers repairing potholes were on the bridge at the time. Underwater drones, sonar and infrared tools show several vehicles submerged in the river. “Never would you think that you would see…the Key Bridge tumble down like that,” Baltimore’s mayor, Brandon Scott, told reporters. “It looked like something out of an action movie.”

Maryland’s governor declared a state of emergency. As of Tuesday evening, divers were searching for six people. Beyond the human toll, the immediate questions concerned the causes and consequences of the disaster—one of the most significant in America for decades, according to Jerry Hajjar, president of the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The FBI has said that terrorism was unlikely to have been behind it.

The 300-metre-long ship, the Dali, was heading from the Port of Baltimore to Colombo, in Sri Lanka, when it “lost propulsion”, according to an unclassified Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency report. The crew reportedly notified officials that a bridge collision was likely. Eyewitnesses say that the ship’s lights flickered just before impact. Locals heard a loud thunder-like rumble in the middle of the night. “The house started shaking,” says Cyrus Gilbert, a resident of Locust Point, Maryland, directly across the harbour.

The bridge could have been structurally sound. A report by the ASCE gave Maryland a B for its bridges and a B- for ports in 2020. “Bridges are not designed to withstand lateral loads from ships on their columns,” said Masoud Hayatdavoodi, an expert in Civil Engineering and Naval Architecture at the University of Dundee’s School of Science and Engineering. “There is no question that the bridge would collapse due to the impact on the columns.”

President Joe Biden promises to foot the bill to get the bridge rebuilt as soon as possible. But the economic impact on the city is already being felt. Traffic at the port is closed until further notice, causing ripples beyond the harbour. The port supports over 15,000 direct jobs, and roughly 140,000 jobs are linked to it in some way. That includes everything from Amazon drivers to local dry-cleaners. The port has a huge footprint not just in Baltimore, but in the state of Maryland. Dariys Irani, of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Maryland’s Towson University, says the port closure alone will probably cost roughly $50m a day in lost economic activity.

During the clean-up, port activity may be slowed or paused. The harbour is an important link in America’s supply chain. More than 50 ocean carriers make nearly 1,800 annual visits. It is especially important in the automotive world. Its private and public terminals handled nearly 850,000 cars and light trucks in 2023, the most of any American port. In 2023 the port also ranked first in the country in handling farm and construction machinery, as well as imported sugar and gypsum, and ranks second for coal exports.

If another port experienced a hiccup for whatever reason (for example, because of the weather, labour disputes or cyber-attacks), the toll on the American economy could be severe. For now, though, the national impact is likely to be limited. Other ports, such as New York-New Jersey and Virginia, should be able to pick up the slack. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, a ratings agency, says that the national economy will be OK, but Baltimore will feel the pain in its collective wallet. Commuters and lorry drivers will also face disruption. Last year the bridge served 34,000 commercial and passenger vehicles a day, about 15% of traffic in the area.

The Baltimore Harbour has long been a symbol of America’s resilience. During the War of 1812 against the British, the Americans successfully defended Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour, an event immortalised by Francis Scott Key in his 19th-century poem that became America’s national anthem. The tragedy will give the city and port time to implement upgrades that they would find harder when the port is active. After the full scope of the disaster has been understood, and the lost lives properly mourned, Baltimore may emerge with a better bridge and harbour.