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Mississippi flooding’s impact on freight, economy spreads downstream

Moored barges on the Mississippi River. Photo: iStock

The Mississippi River has been swollen for several months, disrupting commerce up and down its 2,300-plus miles. Historic flooding has ruined billions of dollars worth of crops and farmland in the Midwest, and the damage has been spreading downstream, all the way to Louisiana. The flooding has also damaged levees, dams, bridges and roads, putting stress on the commercial river traffic that is crucial to American industry.

Rich Teubner is vice president of Seacor AMH, a company that operates three dozen tow vessels that shuttle barges up and down the Mississippi. This is how he described the situation to the New Orleans Advocate on June 15:

“It’s like being in an airport during severe weather when you’re trying to get out. It slows everything right down, and everyone is stalled in the queues waiting to get through.”

The immediate effects of the flooding have been fairly obvious, and river pilots have been working around the clock while the U.S. Coast Guard has forced ships and barges to berth for days. Long-term disruptions in barge traffic flow on the Mississippi are bound to have additional detrimental effects, but to what degree remains to be seen.

“It’s a ripple effect,” Teubner added. “If a ship doesn’t come in and offload those containers that we pick up at the port, then we’re stalled there. In addition, it is taking a lot more time to get through the locks, and the restrictions [imposed by the Coast Guard] mean there is only one-way traffic on many parts of the river.”

SONAR: Flooding risk persists on the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Baton Rouge (light-orange shaded area outlined in yellow). Updated June 18, 2019.

The high and often times fast-moving water has slowed down incoming cargo traffic, crowding the mouth of the Mississippi. This is according to Paul Aucoin, president of the Port of South Louisiana. It costs businesses about $25,000 per day to have a cargo ship at anchor, and at one point during the week week of June 10 there were 27 ships berthed and waiting at the mouth of the river.

“That’s ridiculous,” Aucoin also told the New Orleans Advocate. “Normally, there are three or four or five ships.”

The Port of South Louisiana, located near the city of LaPlace, is a crucial center of U.S. economic activity, connected to America’s heartland by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It’s the largest tonnage port in the western hemisphere, and it’s the only port in the U.S. that ranks in the top 20 worldwide by the same measure.

Combined with the ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, these three ports serve as a gateway for between 55 to 70 percent of all U.S. exported corn, soybeans and wheat. Barges carry these grains down the Mississippi River to the ports for storage and export. Besides those grains, these ports handle a wide range of other cargoes such as rubber, coffee, steel, containers, coal and manufactured goods.

Mississippi River stage at St. Louis, updated June 18, 2019 at noon CDT. Source: NOAA

River vessel operators have reported that the Coast Guard has been working closely with industry to try to minimize disruption to this key hub, but it has been a huge challenge. Merritt Lane, CEO of Canal Barge, which has a fleet of more than 40 towboats and 800 barges, said the heavy rains that began in November 2018 have been made worse by an unfortunate series of events – excessive Midwest rainfall most of the spring flowing downstream, and record silt build-up (known as shoaling) on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway connecting Mobile, Alabama, to the Tennessee River.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stopped barges, including those carrying midwestern corn and soybean crops that were salvaged from the flooding, from passing through the Port of St. Louis from the upper Mississippi. The barges will remain tied down until the Mississippi River falls below 38 feet there. This may not happen until the end of this week, on June 21 or 22, based on the latest forecast from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The latest Grain Transportation Report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated that 383 grain barges were unloaded in New Orleans for the week ending June 8. This is a 14 percent drop from the previous week.

Even after these barges get the green light to move forward, many locations along the Mississippi are forecast to remain at major flood stage. This will still keep the movement of goods pretty slow on the nation’s longest river, but will probably be considered a major improvement by many people. In this case, slow is better than stopped.

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.