A Helping Hand

Ports’ outreach efforts support community and business partners navigating the challenges of the pandemic

By Tom Gresham

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained seaports in myriad demanding ways in 2020, but ports throughout the Western Hemisphere have steadfastly avoided the temptation to retreat into themselves and focus only on their own challenges. Instead, ports have teamed up with an array of private and public partners to lend a helping hand to their communities. Through their efforts, ports are not only helping their neighbors confront the challenges they face, but they are also building new relationships and strengthening existing ones in a way that promises to boost ports during this distinctively demanding period and into the future.

The ports have engineered these efforts despite their own worries. Import traffic dipped sharply in April, May and June at Western Hemisphere ports, and ports, like other organizations, have been adapting to a new normal in operations, involving masks, remote working, social distancing and virtual meetings/operations.

Still, despite that turmoil, many ports have demonstrated a commitment to boosting their neighbors in an assortment of time-consuming and innovative ways.

“What we do [as ports]is a two-way street,” said Kristin Decas, CEO and port director of the Port of Hueneme in California. “We need the community and they need us, and it’s important that we can work together and celebrate the mutual benefits that we see by working together.”

Community Outreach

The nature of community outreach at ports has changed dramatically. At the Port of Hueneme, the annual Banana Festival attracts around 12,000 attendees each September. Since the port cannot host the event this year, Decas said, “We’re bringing the Banana Festival to the community.” The port has been working with a variety of local partners to hold drive-by food banks for community members. The port and its partners have also given out hand sanitizer and provided information about COVID testing. One drive-by event drew about 700 vehicles, and the port estimates it had served more than 12,000 families at 21 events as of mid-July.

“We’ve tried to do all of this in a unique way,” Decas said. “We want to show respect for the families we’re helping and to help the morale of our community. We want to create a sense of dignity and that we’re all in this together. We have a mariachi band that performs, and we’ve tried to be uplifting to show that we’re going to get through this.”

Similarly, the Port of Palm Beach has served as a local drive-through food distribution site every Saturday afternoon for families in financial hardship. The distributions, which are managed by local nonprofits Hospitality Helping Hands and Feeding South Florida, have attracted about 2,000 families a week to the port to receive food and dry goods.

Manuel Almira, executive director of the Port of Palm Beach, said it is evident the effort is making a difference. Almira said the events, along with other outreach activities, help show the port empathizes with local families struggling to stay afloat.

“We recently spoke with one of our tenants who said she knows a family who depends on the food handed out at the port each week,” Almira said. “She told us the family appreciates the nonprofits and our commitment to service the community…The events will continue as long as the need is there.”