It is a question often asked – how many people outside the ports and shipping industry actually give any thought as to how their food, clothes, fuel and other items find their way across the world to appear on the shop shelf or petrol forecourt?
Those inside the industry often feel unloved and unappreciated; and last December, the news coverage in the UK of the great North Sea storm surge did little to change that.
As high tides, low pressure and the worst possible wind conditions combined to create the surge, television news coverage showed waves lashing piers and seaside attractions, seawater flooding into seafront homes and tourist businesses, and dramatic cliff collapses into the sea.
The fact that Immingham, the UK’s busiest port, was largely under water went almost unnoticed.
Millions of tonnes of seawater had poured over the top of the lock gates, flooding the enclosed dock system, quaysides and terminal operations, knocking out the network of electricity substations and forcing the temporary closure of the entire port.
In a massive clear-up and drying-out operation, terminals were gradually brought back into action over the next several days. But as John Fitzgerald, ABP’s Humber ports director, said: “For the busiest port in the country, this was a pretty alarming set of circumstances”
He agreed that in the news coverage there was a lot of focus on the impact of the surge on the public and Immingham’s plight hardly featured – but, he said, the government was acutely aware that the port serves the oil refinery and several power stations, amongst many other major cargo streams.
Fast forward a few months and Immingham has just hosted a ministerial visit to examine flood resiliency. It was good to hear regional flood recovery minister Robert Goodwill recognise Immingham as “a vital national asset”.
“We need to make sure it is resilient to future incidents like we had in early December,” he said. “This facility is vital to the transport infrastructure of our country. The oil that comes in here is refined here and makes sure we have diesel and petrol for our vehicles and worldwide markets. It is vital to make sure the lights stay on, as the coal and biomass that comes here fuel the power stations.
“Fortunately we had no major interruption of this vital supply following the tidal surge, but the events of that night show how potentially vulnerable this port is and underlines the importance of taking strides to make it more resilient.”
Of course we would not wish for the worst, but perhaps a few empty petrol pumps and a week of power cuts might have led to a more widespread appreciation of how important the ports sector is to everyone’s quality of life.