Maersk Santana

The Maersk Santana container ship leaves Wando Welch Terminal at the Port of Charleston. The State Ports Authority, which operates the port, said it handled a record amount of cargo in August. Provided/State Ports Authority

Imports continue to drive growth at the Port of Charleston, but it's no longer because of tariffs.

"Our volume growth going forward is more related to global economic strength than trade tensions," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, which operates the port.

Charleston's terminals handled 233,110 cargo containers measured in 20-foot increments in August, breaking the monthly record set last year by nearly 13 percent.

The SPA reported a 9 percent rise in cargo over the first two months of the current fiscal year, putting the port on target for a fourth consecutive year of record growth.

Much of the increase in recent months was tied to shippers in China sending their U.S.-bound cargo early to avoid looming tariff increases that have been part of President Donald Trump's trade war. Most of the tariffs are now in place, so front-loading cargo is less prevalent.

These days, America's resilient consumers are driving the growth, according to the SPA.

"The U.S. economy is still strong and there is consumer confidence, which relates to strong import growth," said Barbara Melvin, the authority's chief operating officer. 

Consumer sentiment in the U.S. rose more than expected this month, according to data released Friday by the University of Michigan. The university's consumer survey jumped to 92 in September from 89.8 the previous month. The data indicates consumers think the Federal Reserve Board will cut interest rates when it meets next week.

Empty containers continued to make up a large portion of boxes exported from Charleston — about 42 percent — in an indication that America's demand for foreign products is outstripping the overseas appetite for U.S. goods.

"Empties are being utilized to fill big ships on return voyages to Asia to be used for more imports, and this will continue until the export market — mainly agricultural and forest products — regains strength," Melvin said.

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Other Southeast ports reported mixed results.

Cargo volumes at the Port of Virginia were off by 1,145 containers, or 0.4 percent, last month compared to a year ago. That's despite imports rising by nearly 4 percent for the period.

"Our month-to-month volumes will rebound, especially in these next couple of months leading into the retail season," John Reinhart, CEO of the Virginia Port Authority, said in a statement. "We are focused on diversifying our cargo mix, looking at new markets and working to raise awareness of the capabilities of this world-class port."

The Georgia Ports Authority had not reported August totals by Friday, but the agency said it moved a record 4.5 million cargo containers for the fiscal year that ended in June. That represented a 7.3 percent increase in cargo over the previous year.

Griff Lynch, the authority's executive director, also announced Thursday that port-related business announcements and expansions accounted for nearly $5 billion in investment and 12,000 jobs during the fiscal year.

"Savannah is an incredibly hot market right now," Lynch said.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_