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Earthquake’s impact on port might not be felt for weeks

Following Friday’s earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan, Maryland port officials are unsure of the impact manufacturing shutdowns in that key economic node will have on Baltimore’s sea-based trade.

Cargo already on the docks and in warehouses here and ships already en route will delay any trickle down effect, said Maryland Port Administration spokesman Richard Scher.

“Any impact from what happened over the weekend in Japan might not be seen at the Port of Baltimore for several more weeks,” he said. “It’s a very much wait-and-see situation right now.”

Japan is the port’s 12th-largest international trading partner, accounting for 353,000 tons of cargo moved through the public and private terminals last year, or 2 percent of the port’s total business.

Passenger vehicles made up nearly half Japan’s total, or 167,000 tons. The port also imported 97,000 tons of coke — the coal product used to fuel steel making and other metallurgy — and 58,000 tons of other roll-on/roll-off, or “ro/ro” cargo, such as tractors and construction equipment.

Many of the Japan’s auto manufacturers, including Toyota, Nissan and Honda, halted production Monday.

The companies are suspending production to assess damage to plants, ports and roads following the natural disaster, which was centered in northern Japan, killing thousands, destroying towns and wrecking the infrastructure of the world’s second-largest auto producer.

U.S. supply of some fuel-efficient cars such as the Toyota Prius hybrid, Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit, may be affected because they are built exclusively in Japan and could become more desirable if U.S. gasoline prices reach $4 per gallon.

“There could be some issues where customers don’t get the exact vehicle that they want,” said Jessica Caldwell, an automotive analyst with auto website Edmunds.com. “But I would say it doesn’t look like the inventory situation right now looks dire.”

Top U.S. sellers such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima — all sedans — are made in North America. Barclays Capital analyst Brian Johnson said he expects the companies “to maintain adequate inventory for most vehicles.”

Japan made nearly 7.9 million vehicles in 2009, or about 13 percent of the 61.7 million vehicles produced worldwide that year, according to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers. The U.S. is its largest market, taking in 1.2 million Japanese vehicle imports, according to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Scher said the port does “very little” import business from the big Japanese manufactures, but added Suzuki and Subaru are among the port’s largest vehicle importers.

Suzuki Motor Corp. announced Monday all six plants in Japan would be closed through at least Wednesday. When to reopen “will be decided after we assess the situation,” the company said in a posting on its website.

Fuji Heavy Industries Inc., parent company of Subaru, shut plants through Wednesday as well, according to Automotive News, impacting exports of its Impreza and Forester lines.

Scher said the port officials were unsure of the quake’s impact on plants run by Caterpillar, Komatsu and other heavy machinery producers.

“We don’t think at this time though that a lot of their facilities were located in areas that were directly affected by this disaster,” he said. “And whether or not they were directly in the impacted area may not affect if they can produce or not. Everything is up in the air right now.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.