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Flooding closes more roads, stalls barges in Midwest

Photo: Shutterstock

Flooding has been relentless for months in parts of the Midwest freight region because of a very wet spring, and for the past couple of weeks in parts of the Southwest freight region due to severe thunderstorms day after day. Some roads are covered with high water and impassable, and barges can no longer pass through key ports.

By Road

Flooding on I-680 in Omaha, Nebraska on May 31, 2019.

Several locations on the Missouri River are back to minor or moderate flood levels in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska, with “Road Closed” signs popping back up on the highways. Last week, sections of I-29 that had been opened in Iowa and Missouri were shut down again after severe storms and flash flooding hammered the region. The flooding has not only disrupted transportation, but it has cut into the profits of local businesses.

Mendy Lewis, manager of the Garden Inn Truck Plaza just off I-29 in Forest City, Missouri, told KSHB-TV “It’s like a ghost town” when describing the recent slump in business.

Forest City is just north of St. Joseph, Missouri, and I-29 is closed in both directions in many areas from St. Joseph to just north of Pacific Junction, Iowa. This is a distance of around 100 miles with the highway open, but under the current situation the detours add an extra 35 to 50 miles.

“The highway being closed was awful, like ‘close the doors’ awful,” Lewis added.

“In 60 years, I haven’t seen this much water,” said Donald Hall, who lives in Mound City, Missouri, about 13 miles from Forest City. It’s not the first time this year parts of the interstate have been closed. From late March to early May, segments of I-29 were shut down because of flooding and subsequent repairs.

Hall, who often eats at the Garden Inn Truck Plaza restaurant, feels badly for Lewis. “It would be difficult to run a truck stop without trucks, and that’s what they’re up against now,” he said.

Until conditions improve, the Missouri Department of Transportation has provided the following detour information:

  • Kansas City area through traffic should use I-35 to Iowa
  • St. Joseph area through traffic should use US-71 north
  • Local traffic can bypass I-29 by either going north on US-71 and west on US-59, or by taking northbound I-229 to northbound I-29

Another section of I-29 in Iowa that remains closed is from Council Bluffs to Loveland, a stretch of around 17 miles. Last Friday, May 31, I-680 was closed from the Nebraska-Iowa line to the I-29 junction, bringing the number of flood-related river crossings closed to six.

By Rail

Union Pacific rail outages as of May 31, 2019.

BNSF rail outages as of May 31, 2019.

Severe weather, heavy rainfall and flooding also continue to impact railroad operations in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, resulting in the following outages by Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP):

New Outages

  • Falls City Subdivision (at Atchison, Kansas, and Oreapolis, Nebraska)
  • Pinckneyville Subdivision (out of service near Chester, Missouri)

Continued Outages

  • River Subdivision (Kansas City to Jefferson City, Missouri)
  • Wagoner Subdivision (Coffeyville, Kansas, to Van Buren, Arkansas)
  • Cherokee Subdivision (Parsons, Kansas, to McAlester, Oklahoma)
  • Oklahoma City Subdivision (El Reno to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) – UNP expected to open the Oklahoma City Subdivision this past weekend
  • Tulsa Subdivision (Tulsa to Muskogee, Oklahoma)

There’s also an expanded outage at the Van Buren Subdivision (Fort Smith to North Little Rock, Arkansas). Outages also continue at BNSF (NYSE: BRK.A) subdivisions.

By Water

SONAR Critical Events: Barge traffic stopped at ports of Little Rock and St. Louis due to flooding. Flood Warnings indicated by the light orange shading.

Last week, FreightWaves reported on barge traffic being suspended at the port of St. Louis because of major flooding returning to the area. Officials with the port of Little Rock made the same decision last Friday because of recent flooding on the Arkansas River. Dozens of barges are tied off in a slack water channel with no place to go because the river is unsafe to navigate.

“This really is uncharted waters, so to speak,” Bryan Day, the president of the Port of Little Rock told KTHV-TV. “We’ve never had a flood event, a high water event of this level of this magnitude.”

Day said crews have been working for two weeks to get ready for the shut down. The current is so strong and the water so high that even the strongest towboats can’t safely work. Oakley Transportation was holding some 65 barges in its North Little Rock facility, as well as a few out in the river channel. Powerful towboats are on standby to keep them from getting loose.

“This is a different kind of animal,” said Fred Long, the general manager for Logistic Services, Inc., the company that mans the docks in the port. “You know we’ve already seen one of our neighbors get flooded in this event. We’re expecting to take on some water.”

The port is quiet now, but hard work will pick up as the water subsides. Barges will have to be dragged off banks back into the water, but that is still weeks away.

“It’s likely to be 10 to 12 weeks before we’re able to move commerce again,” Day said. “That’s going to impact the consumer. That’s going to impact people’s livelihoods.”

Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.