Floods Affect Barges and Rails

The flooding this month in the Midwest has caused some major commercial delays. Nearly 300 miles of the Mississippi River are off-limits to barges. The closing of the Mississippi is costing some barge operators upward of a $1 million a day.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

You don't have to live on the Mississippi River to feel the impact of this week's record flooding. As flood waters continue to roll south, the shipping industry along the river has been shut down completely. Locks and dams, even some rail lines, are under water.

And as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports from St. Louis, this may mean higher prices for goods that travel along the Mississippi to get to you.

KATHY LOHR: Closing down barge traffic on the Mississippi has a huge impact, not just on the Midwest, but across the country. The river is a major transportation corridor winding through 10 states and moving all kinds of goods from oil and coal to grain, and even steel. But the barge industry is now stuck, literally, up the river. When the flood waters began to surge, tug boats and barges had no choice but to tie up and wait.

Mr. DAVID BUSSE (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers): Everything above the Melvin Price Lock and Dam in Alton, up until you get way up into St. Paul, is closed right now because of high water.

LOHR: David Busse is chief engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis. He says that's nearly 300 miles of waterway. What it really means is that boats and barges can't get from Minneapolis all the way down to St. Louis.

Mr. BUSSE: We close our navigation locks typically when the water goes over the walls, the lock walls. It is not safe either for the barge companies or for the structure to navigate at that point.

(Soundbite of running water)

LOHR: Here at the Melvin Price Lock and Dam near Alton, Illinois, water is gushing around the cement walls and lock chambers. While this lock is still open, few boats or barges are moving through it. Andy Shemp(ph) is operations manager for the Corps' Mississippi River Project. He oversees nearly half a dozen locks.

Mr. ANDY SHEMP (Operations Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi River Project): The entire Midwest depends on this river system for its economy. Most people don't even realize what gets shipped on this river and what the value of it is. So the impacts of a flood like this are huge.

LOHR: Among the goods that flow through this lock are coal, building materials like cement and sand, and hundreds of thousands of tons of agricultural products, from fertilizer to corn. While it's still too early to measure the economic impact, Shemp says neither trains nor trucks can handle the amount of goods shipped by barge. One tow boat with its 15 barge load would fill nearly 900 trucks and more than two trains, each with 100 freight cars. But the flooding has also washed out some rail lines and closed down others.

Mr. SHEMP: With our numbers, the impact is something like $100,000 a day at each lock that's down, and that grows exponentially to where a week is something like $4 million. The impact to the towing industry, I believe the real impact is much greater than that.

Ms. LYNN MUENCH (American Waterways Operators): The impact is not just the upper Mississippi, which everyone is concentrating on obviously because it's a complete closure.

LOHR: Lynn Muench is with the American Waterways Operators, the national trade association for the barge industry. On a normal day, 40 to 60 barges would travel the river. Muench says the cost of not being able to fulfill shipping contracts runs about $1 million a day, and that doesn't measure the cost of farmers, or the longer term cost associated with the delays in getting goods downstream and eventually overseas.

Ms. MUENCH: There are ships that will be waiting in New Orleans for corn and soy bean exports, that will be waiting for corn and soy bean exports because it won't get there. This is impacting the entire nation and just not the upper Midwest.

LOHR: Industry and agriculture are likely to see major delays all over the country, as it could take months to catch up with shipping, even though parts of the Mississippi may reopen soon. And in St. Louis, the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard are working hard to keep the harbor open. If it closes, that would shut down shipping on the Illinois and Missouri Rivers and create even more delays. One thing the 1993 floods taught everyone here is that they can't really make any firm plans; the mighty Mississippi has a mind of its own.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, St. Louis.

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