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Port Reopens Quicker Than Expected _ But Much Damage Remains

July 15, 1995

KOBE, Japan (AP) _ When a Japanese ship called the George Washington Bridge sailed earlier this month with a cargo of consumer electronic goods, it marked a triumph for Kobe’s port.

Nothing is more important to the economic survival of Kobe than its port, once Japan’s second-largest.

Before the devastating quake of Jan. 17, it handled nearly one-third of Japan’s container cargo. Now that has fallen by half.

The port, which accounts for 23,000 jobs, is expected to make only 1.5 billion yen ($17 million) this fiscal year _ about one-tenth the revenue the previous year.

The 7.5-magnitude quake threw containers of cargo into the sea, toppled and buckled cranes the size of small buildings, and punched holes 3 feet deep into concrete wharfs, exposing the sea below.

One of the hardest hit facilities was the man-made Port Island, where Shosen Koun shipping company had three berths able to handle large container ships.

Initially, Shosen had its hands full just assessing damage and beginning the cleanup. In April, it jury-rigged one of the berths, driving trucks onto a temporary platform where ships’ cranes could unload goods.

By the next month, the company had completed repairs to another berth, fixing rails to guide and hold cranes so unloading could be done by the usual method _ plucking containers from ships and setting them on special carriers for storage and trucking.

The George Washington Bridge docked there, unloading produce in 20- and 40-foot-long containers before reloading with electronics gear and heading out July 5 for Hong Kong, Singapore and California.

The company is handling one-third fewer containers than before the quake. It estimates damage and lost revenue at the equivalent of $15 million this year.

But Shosen executive Katsuhiko Yasuda is heartened by the activity of container-carrying vehicles rolling by.

``We’ll work at night, around the clock, whatever we have to do,″ he said, standing on fresh pavement just yards from a remaining crater.

As a whole, the port is coming back to life faster than expected.

A key access road to nearby Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, recently reopened. Ships from China, South Korea, the Netherlands, the United States and elsewhere are loaded and unloaded even as workers nearby fill holes and shovel debris.

Still, the port is not expected to be fully repaired until March 1997, and in the meantime business is moving elsewhere. Shippers are going to Yokohama, outside Tokyo, and to foreign ports like Pusan, South Korea, which has more than doubled its routes to Japan.

Executives at Shosen know the battle to make a comeback is far from over. Two of the company’s berths are so badly damaged they will not be fixed before next spring.

Shosen is talking to its labor union about laying off some of its 200 workers _ a drastic step in Japan. Workers have taken at least 8 percent pay cuts, and most will take even deeper reductions in their bonuses, a big supplement to most Japanese workers’ salaries.

Yasuda says it is difficult, but more than Shosen’s future is at stake.

``If goods don’t come into the port, all of Kobe will suffer,″ he said.

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