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Midwest flooding ripples through economy, transportation

Flooded farm near Canton, Missouri on May 30, 2019. Photo: Captain Justin Collis/U.S. National Guard

For months, farmers and ranchers along the Missouri River from eastern Nebraska through western Iowa haven’t been able to rebound from major flooding that destroyed billions of dollars of crops, cattle and property. The flooding situation has worsened due to heavy mid-spring rains that caused the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries from St. Louis to the Gulf Coast to swell beyond normal levels.

Mississippi River stage at St. Louis, 11:00 a.m. CDT on June 6, 2019. Source: NOAA

In recent weeks, day after day of severe thunderstorms have also flooded farms and neighborhoods along the Arkansas River, from southeastern Kansas to Tulsa to Little Rock. Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and port authority officials suspended all barge traffic through the ports of Little Rock and St. Louis. Barges won’t be allowed to go through St. Louis until the Mississippi River falls to 38 feet, which may not happen until June 17 (see graph above). Even some rail services have been temporarily stopped into and out of the Port of Little Rock.

“It’s going to be two or three months before we’re able to safely and consistently move cargo on the river,” Bryan Day, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority told KATV on June 4. “The negative economic impact—the loss of jobs, the cost of goods and delivery—you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Recent major flooding on the Arkansas River near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

According to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, the Arkansas River flooding is costing the state nearly $23 million a day in lost gross domestic product alone. But the economic effects have rippled far beyond any one state or region.

SONAR Critical Events: Thursday, June 6, 2019—Flooding along the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers (areas shaded in light orange); bright orange dots and “doughnuts” indicate assets, such as ports and oil refineries, under Medium risk of flooding.

The Port of New Orleans on the Gulf Coast—or Port NOLA as it’s often called—is connected to America’s heartland by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It handles a wide range of cargoes such as agricultural products, rubber, coffee, steel, containers, coal and manufactured goods. Several thousand vessels carry around 500 million tons of cargo up and down the Mississippi each year. This includes more than half of the country’s grain exports. The local New Orleans economy stands to take a hit as long as upstream barge traffic is paralyzed.

Port-related industries generate one in five jobs in Louisiana, and the average salary of companies located on Port NOLA property, according to its website, is $74,000 per year—41 percent higher than the average local salary. Port NOLA generates $100 million in revenue annually through its four lines of business—cargo, rail, industrial real estate and cruises—but a large chunk will probably be washed away by the floods.

SONAR Critical Events: Thursday, June 6, 2019—Assets at Medium risk of flooding at the mouth of the Mississippi River, including the Port of New Orleans.

Barge grain movements have been decreasing recently, presumably because of the flooding (at least in part), as well as closed locks and stoppages at ports. Here’s what happened the week ending June 1: overall movements were 50 percent lower than the previous week, and 72 percent lower than the same period last year; 1, 153 grain barges moved down river for export from the New Orleans region, which is 171 fewer barges than the previous week.

With seemingly no end to the flooding in sight, it may send shock waves through the bulk trucking industry down the road. According to a report published on A May 28 report from the USDA showed only around 67 percent of the nation’s corn crops and 39 percent of soybeans had been planted. Based on the five-year average, 95 percent of corn and 79 percent of soybeans are normally in the ground by late May.

Jared Flinn, operating partner at, told FreightWaves that the impact of substantial drops in production is a double-edged sword. “It’s positive for trucking companies nearby with more freight moving and demand up, but could be negative this fall if we don’t have the crop to move,” said Flinn. “Many truckers make much more in the fall during harvest.”

Truck carrying a hopper load. Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves, based in southwestern Missouri, is a third-party service that provides load matching, payment and technology solutions for the bulk trucking industry. A large majority of its clients are located in the nation’s heartland across the Corn Belt.

Flinn added that freight disruptions at ports are adding to the problem. “Barges are being shut down nearby, negatively affecting trucking companies that transport grain to barge facilities.”

Flinn emphasized that “nobody wants to see a disaster crop”, but one positive note is that corn prices are rallying as a result of the flooding. This is good for farmers who survived the weather and still have crops from last year, as well as crops planted for this fall.

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.