Jackson: Shipping already curtailed because of flooding that is plaguing the Mississippi River was halted for much of Tuesday when officials closed the waterway north of New Orleans in the latest tough decision to try to reduce pressure on levees protecting cities and towns.
By late in the day, barges that haul coal, timber, iron, steel and more than half of America`s grain exports were allowed to pass, but at the slowest possible speed. Such interruptions could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for each day the barges are idled, as the toll from the weeks-long flooding from Arkansas to Louisiana continues to mount.
Officials along a 15-mile stretch at Natchez, Miss., blocked vessels heading toward the Gulf of Mexico and others trying to return north after dropping off their freight. Had the channel remained closed, it could`ve brought traffic to a standstill on the river, a conduit for about 500 million tons of cargo each year.
Coast Guard officials said wakes generated by passing barge traffic could increase the strain on levees designed to hold back the river. Authorities were also concerned that barges could not operate safely in the flooded river, which has risen to the level of some docks and submerged others.
"We`re closely monitoring traffic along the river and all vessels must stay to the center of the river," Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Moland said.
In Vidalia, La., across the river from Natchez, Carla Jenkins was near tears as she watched the first tows and barge move north after the reopening.
"The water from the wakes just keeps coming into our buildings. We`re going to have a lot more damage," said Jenkins, who owns Vidalia Dock and Storage
Moland said the Coast Guard tested wake impact before making the decision. The tests indicated sandbagging and other measures to protect most of the area could withstand the wakes if the vessels were ordered to move through the areas slowly.
The Mississippi is a highway for barges laden with corn, soybeans and other crops headed from the Midwest to ports near New Orleans, where they get loaded onto massive grain carriers for export around the world.
It`s not clear how long barges would only be able to move one at a time through the section. The river is expected to stay high in some places for weeks.
The Coast Guard did not have comprehensive figures on how many vessels were immediately affected, but the agency stopped at least 19 near Natchez.
In past closures, the numbers have grown quickly. In 2008, the agency halted 59 ships within a day of shutting down a stretch of the river near New Orleans because of a barge and tanker collision.
Shipping companies had hoped for a swift reopening.
On a typical day, 600 barges move up and down the river, according to Bob Anderson, spokesman for the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. A single barge can carry as much cargo as 70 tractor-trailers or 17 rail cars.
"When it shuts, there`s really no alternative," said Jim Reed, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.
The Coast Guard`s traffic-management division hoped to prevent barges from piling up on either side of the closed zone by requiring them to be at least 1,200 feet apart.
Also Tuesday, at least 10 freight terminals along the lower Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans suspended operations because of high water. Vessels scheduled to use the terminals will either have to wait out the high water or divert elsewhere. Delaying a vessel by even a single day often costs $20,000 to $40,000, port officials said.
Throughout the spring, the Mississippi is a highway for barges laden with corn, soybeans and other crops headed from the Midwest to ports near New Orleans, where they get loaded onto massive grain carriers for export around the world.