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Salvage Teams Race To Reopen Blocked Suez Canal

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Officials in Egypt report that the Ever Given container ship has been set free. This is, you'll remember, the massive container ship that ran aground in the vital trading route that links the Mediterranean and Red Seas. For the last six days, it blocked all traffic in the Suez Canal. NPR's Jackie Northam has been following this story and is with us now for this update. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: How did they get this ship unstuck?

NORTHAM: Well, powerful tugboats and high tides, basically. You know, the tugboats wrenched the ship, the Evergreen (ph), from the canal bank a few hours ago. And as I said, they got a lot of help from a high tide, which peaked at about the same time. But leading up to this, the tugs and dredges have spent the weekend moving millions of tons of sand and mud to try to dislodge the bow of the boat away from the bank. And that allowed an earlier tide yesterday to help partially refloat the ship. So all of these elements finally came together and the Ever Given is now free. And salvage teams are slowly pulling the vessel towards a nearby lake about halfway up the canal, and they'll start inspecting it to see if there's any damage and particularly to the bow of the ship.

MARTIN: I mean, this was a huge global problem because the Ever Given, by getting stuck, ended up blocking so many other vessels that were trying to get through the Suez Canal. Now that it's free, does it mean those other ships can get through?

NORTHAM: Not immediately, no. An analyst I spoke with said salvage teams will have to take a look at the floor bed of the canal to see if and/or how much has been disturbed by the Ever Given being stranded there for almost a week, not to mention all the dredging that's been going on and if it could somehow affect other ships coming through the canal. So traffic is not going to resume right away. But, you know, there are over 360 ships waiting to pass through the canal. Many have been sitting there idle for the better part of the week. And, you know, time truly is money in the shipping industry. Over the past few days, some ship owners have had to make a decision, do they wait it out or reroute and go around South Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, which means a two-to-four-week delay and a massive cost to the journey. And some ships have done this. They just - they took that gamble. And, you know, there's no indication when the Suez Canal will actually open up again. It's going to take some days to clear the backlog of ships that have been waiting to get through.

MARTIN: Right. So you have in the past reported on how the shipping industry itself was in a difficult position because of the pandemic and the related recession, economic slowdown. How consequential have these six days been?

NORTHAM: Very consequential, actually. Yeah, the Suez Canal is one of the world's busiest trade routes, and normally about $9 billion of trade goes through it every single day, and it's been completely shut down. So global trade was already disrupted because of the pandemic. You know, you've had congestion at the major ports in the world, and there's been a shortage of containers, now this. The shipping company Maersk issued a statement today saying the ripple effects of the stranded ship are significant and that the disruptions created by it could take weeks, possibly months, to clear. And Maersk said it had already rerouted 15 ships. So, you know, this is going to take a while to unwind, certainly.

MARTIN: All right. But for now, the ship has been dislodged. NPR's Jackie Northam, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.