The Marketplace Report: New Orleans Trade Shutoff

Alex Chadwick talks to John Dimsdale of Marketplace about how the shutdown of New Orleans — one of the nation's major trade hubs — has affected grain, coffee and other commodity shipments both in and out of the country.

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Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Here's one measure of how badly oil and natural gas prices have been disrupted by Hurricane Katrina. In Atlanta, Georgia, today, gas was going for more than $5 a gallon. That's not all. Seaports from Alabama to Louisiana have suffered damage as well, and these are entry points for things coming into the country and exit points for things that American producers are trying to export: chemicals and grains and agriculture. Joining us is John Dimsdale, Washington bureau chief for "Marketplace."

John, how about shipping and trade along the Gulf?

JOHN DIMSDALE ("Marketplace"): Well, just about every port in the area remains shut down, although just today officials were finally able to open one. The port of Mobile, Alabama, is now open to smaller boats. But essentially, the docks that handle a quarter of the country's waterborne trade are still clogged up. Barges are backing up in the Mississippi and Missouri and Ohio River systems.

Now the ships that are bringing in products from outside the US have a few more options, and they're scrambling to find alternate ports to take their goods. But that means rerouting all sort of rail and trucking systems on land, so there's going to be supply disruptions for a lot products throughout the entire country for weeks and maybe months.

CHADWICK: Well, oil and gas we know about, but what other kinds of products?

DIMSDALE: Well, first, there are the indigenous crops from the area: oysters, crabs, sugar. Ten percent of the country's chickens come through Mississippi. A lot of fruit imports come through the Gulf. A major Chiquita banana facility in Gulfport, Mississippi, has been really damaged. There's imported lumber for construction, rubber for tires. Kurt Nagle, the president of the American Association of Port Authorities, says there are 360 ports in the US, and others will eventually be able to pick up the slack.

Mr. KURT NAGLE (President, American Association of Port Authorities): In the short term, things like coffee and bananas, fruit, etc., that flow very heavily through New Orleans and Gulfport--there may be limited issues while that cargo is being diverted through other ports to ultimately reach the shelves. But the bottom line is that those cargos will be able to find alternative ports to handle that in the short term to help keep those commodities flowing.

CHADWICK: And does that apply to exports as well, John?

DIMSDALE: Absolutely. I mean, a lot of farmers are worried about this fall's harvest. Half of the nation's grain shipments go through the loading docks on the Gulf that are now shut down. And while most of the corn and soybeans and wheat is still in the ground, when the harvest starts reaching those ports in October and November, there's a real question whether the harbors will be able to handle the flow. And there aren't many alternative ways to get those shipments out, which raises the specter of these grain silos just bursting at the seams with no place for the surplus to go.

Coming up later on "Marketplace," we're going to look at how all this disruption will affect the availability of consumer products around the country.

CHADWICK: OK, good story. Thank you, John Dimsdale of public radio's daily business show, "Marketplace," from American Public Media.

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