Despite recent hurricanes, congestion levels are low and cargo is flowing smoothly at the nation’s major retail container ports as merchants move into the peak shipping cycle for the annual holiday sales season, according to the October Port Tracker report released by the National Retail Federation and Global Insight.

“This is good news, especially when you compare it to the labor shortages, shutdowns and other problems we’ve seen in recent years,” NRF Vice President and International Trade Counsel Erik Autor said. “Holiday sales make up one-fifth of the retail industry’s revenue for the entire year, so this is the most crucial shipping cycle we face. Thanks to Port Tracker, we’re able to monitor and forecast port conditions and try to avoid delays that would keep products from reaching store shelves in time.”

“Going into the peak month of the peak season, the ports are in good condition,” Global Insight Principal Economist Paul Bingham said. “Transportation providers and shippers have made decisions that have reduced the pressure on the system compared with a year ago. Despite the disruptions to the national system from the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, the risk of congestion now appears lower than we were concerned with last month. The slower overall growth in container volume has also contributed to this situation.”

The September Port Tracker report gave the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland a medium congestion rating out of concern that Gulf Coast damage from Hurricane Katrina would require railroad rerouting that would slow down trains taking cargo away from other ports. Despite extensive local damage in the Gulf, the impact of August’s Hurricane Katrina and September’s Hurricane Rita on the national rail system turned out to be relatively modest. Consequently, LA/Long Beach and Oakland’s congestion rating was back at low this month. The remaining ports covered by Port Tracker ’ Tacoma, Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Hampton Roads, Charleston and Savannah ’ were also ranked low, with none at medium or high.

Nationwide, ports covered in the survey handled 1.38 million teus of container traffic during August, the most recent month for which historical data is available. The figure is up 11% from the same month in 2004 and 3.5% from this July. Over the report’s six-month forecast period, traffic is expected to peak at 1.42 million teus in October, up 7.4% from a year ago, before settling to 1.24 million teus in February 2006, up seven percent from February 2005.(Figures are higher than previously reported because of revised data.)

For West Coast ports, total inbound container throughput is growing much more slowly than during the same months in 2004. Strong growth in volume through the Oakland and Puget Sound ports has reversed the early-2005 loss in overall Pacific coastal share of imports compared with Atlantic Coast ports. The current six-month outlook is for much slower growth than the same months of 2004, yet a new record level of containers will be set in October. On the East Coast, inbound container volume will also hit a record in October, traditionally the peak month of the year. Over the next six months, monthly volumes will be five to eight percent higher than a year earlier, compared with double-digit monthly growth observed during 2004.

Port Tracker, which is produced by the economic research, forecasting and analysis firm Global Insight for NRF, was developed in response to severe port congestion experienced in 2004, particularly at West Coast ports, and other recent port disruptions that have threatened the retail industry’s supply of imported merchandise. The report looks at inbound container volume, the availability of trucks and railroad cars to move cargo out of the ports, labor conditions and other factors that affect cargo movement and congestion.