The executive in charge of Georgia's seaports called Thursday for an aggressive expansion that would grow the Port of Savannah's capacity for cargo shipped in containers by 58% over the next three years.

Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, also said in his annual "State of the Ports" speech that a $973 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel linking the port to the Atlantic Ocean will be finished in less than three weeks. Dredging to make room for larger cargo ships began in 2015.

Like other U.S. ports, the Port of Savannah scrambled last year to keep up with a surge in cargo as the economy rebounded from the coronavirus pandemic.

That caused cargo volumes in Savannah, the fourth-busiest U.S. seaport for containers, to jump a whopping 20% last year to a record 5.6 million container units.

The crush forced up to 30 ships at a time to wait off the Georgia coast while as many as 85,000 cargo containers piled up on Savannah's terminal awaiting transport.

Lynch said a significant chunk of that backlog has been eliminated. No ships were idling at sea Thursday. But he said retailers importing goods have shifted from a mindset of restocking inventory "just in time" to ordering extra "just in case."

He said that means the Port of Savannah needs to dramatically increase space for the giant metal containers used to ship retail items ranging from frozen chickens to consumer electronics.

"If the supply chain is going to be turned upside down and we're going to be in a 'just in case' environment, we need to rethink how we handle business,"

Lynch told a crowd of about 1,200 at Savannah's convention center. "We can't just simply do things the same old way."

About half of the planned growth is already in the works. In December, the port authority's governing board agreed to accelerate a $150 million expansion expected to boost Savannah's capacity by about 1.7 million container units by June.

Lynch said next month he will ask the board to approve a $200 million million project that will develop 100 acres (40 hectares) already owned by the port for longer-term storage of shipping containers. That tract will be able to handle about 1 million extra container units each year. It's expected to open in 2024.

Meanwhile, the port plans to continue operating six so-called "pop up" container yards established at inland sites to temporarily store cargo and free up space at Savannah's container terminal.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who gave remarks before Lynch's speech, praised the expansion plan as one that will ensure "that we're not just leading today or tomorrow, but we're going to be leading for years to come."

"Businesses know that Georgia is the best place to operate, grow and invest," Kemp said.

The Savannah harbor deepening began in 2015 as U.S. ports rushed to seek permits and funding to deepen their waterways in order to make room for larger ships transiting an expanded Panama Canal. The Georgia project spent 16 years awaiting studies and funding before dredging could start.

The harbor expansion required deepening a 40-mile (64-kilometer) stretch of the Savannah River between the port and the Atlantic Ocean. Lynch said less than half of a mile (0.8 kilometers) remains.

"We've been talking about this project for 20 years," Lynch said. "We're only going to be talking about it for 20 more days. It is coming to an end."