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Baltimore bridge collapse takes toll on port workers


The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and the resulting blockage of the shipping channel means lost work for many at the Port of Baltimore. As NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports, workers are already feeling the impact.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: When the container ship Dali struck the base of the Key Bridge early Tuesday morning, it set off a rapid chain of events. Where the bridge spanned more than a mile across the Patapsco River, it now lies mangled and half submerged, blocking ships from either leaving or entering the port. And for many who make their livelihoods at the Port of Baltimore, no ships means no work.

SCOTT COWAN: Quite a few are out of work right now, yes.

WAMSLEY: That's Scott Cowan, president of International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 in Baltimore. Those are the folks who load and unload cargo at the port, operate cranes, do maintenance and repair work. And right now, the vessels that put a lot of people to work loading and unloading aren't arriving.

COWAN: For right now, we will keep a few of the folks working over the next week or so, for sure.

WAMSLEY: Officials have offered no timeline for how long they expect it will take to get the channel cleared and reopened. Maryland has set up a special unemployment hotline for affected workers, and the state Senate president said earlier this week he'll sponsor emergency legislation to provide income replacement for affected workers. More than anything, Cowan says, the key to getting the port humming and workers paid is getting the shipping channel reopened.

COWAN: And the impact to the state of Maryland's economy, just with that shipping channel being closed, is $191 million a day.

WAMSLEY: Still, he expects Baltimore's port to fully recover once the debris is cleared and the shipping channel can reopen. Meanwhile, smaller operations along the waterfront are also affected.

BOBBY LAPIN: It's hard to pay bills as it is.

WAMSLEY: Bobby LaPin, or Captain Bobby, owns and operates Boat Baltimore, offering sailing tours of the harbor and Chesapeake Bay. He keeps his sailboat at a marina in South Baltimore.

LAPIN: We don't want to add to clutter of boats in the harbor while there is a recovery mission still ongoing. I also don't want to take bookings for people that are simply trying to get on the boat so they can see the devastation of the bridge.

WAMSLEY: So while normally he'd open April 1, now he won't start cruises in the harbor for at least another month. That means he isn't doing the hiring he normally would of captains and deckhands who work in Florida for the winter and come up north for the summer. Most of his customers are locals, but he figures he'll probably lose some tourists.

LAPIN: We would take longer bookings, like weekend bookings, where we would sail out to the bay, and those were really lucrative bookings for us. And now because we can't get past the bridge, and we more than likely won't be able to get past the bridge for several months, we're just not going to do that kind of stuff this year.

WAMSLEY: No boats are moving at Port Covington Marina in South Baltimore, and LaPin's boat is still moored, with a blue tarp pulled taut over it. Next door, the terminal at Cruise Maryland sits empty, the giant ships now directed to ports in other cities. Just inland is a sleek new development called Baltimore Peninsula, with apartments, office space and restaurants. Alex Snider is the waterfront operations manager for the peninsula's development company. He's standing on the dock over the marina, wearing an Orioles cap for baseball's opening day. He says he's still shocked by the collapse of the city's iconic bridge.

ALEX SNIDER: I actually used to run boats in this harbor, and so I've driven boats, captained boats under that bridge, I mean, hundreds and hundreds of times.

WAMSLEY: He says the bridge was a landmark for Baltimore, and it's going to be a weird few years without it there to mark the visual landscape. But many things in Baltimore will go on as usual.

SNIDER: There's a sailing club that's going to be here. We've got a kayak launch, a public kayak launch, that's over there just on the other side of the distillery. We know we've got - the Baltimore Dragon Boat Club's going to be rowing out of here this year.

WAMSLEY: Still, so much remains unknown. Back at the fallen bridge, two massive cranes have arrived to start clearing debris from the channel. For those in Maryland who depend on the flow of boats and ships to make a living, it can't open soon enough.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.