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Floods disrupt barge traffic

High water makes shipping perilous

JACKSON, Miss. – Shipping already curtailed because of flooding that is plaguing the Mississippi River was halted for much of Tuesday when officials closed the waterway north of New Orleans in the latest tough decision to try to reduce pressure on levees protecting cities and towns.

By late in the day, barges that haul coal, timber, iron, steel and more than half of America’s grain exports were allowed to pass, but at the slowest possible speed. Such interruptions could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for each day the barges are idled.

Officials along a 15-mile stretch at Natchez, Miss., blocked vessels heading toward the Gulf of Mexico and others trying to return north after dropping off their freight. Had the channel remained closed, it could’ve brought traffic to a standstill on the river, a conduit for about 500 million tons of cargo each year.

Coast Guard officials said wakes generated by passing barge traffic could increase the strain on levees designed to hold back the river. Authorities were also concerned that barges could not operate safely in the flooded river, which has risen to the level of some docks and submerged others.

“We’re closely monitoring traffic along the river and all vessels must stay to the center of the river,” Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Moland said.

In Vidalia, La., across the river from Natchez, Carla Jenkins was near tears as she watched the first tows and barge move north after the reopening.

“The water from the wakes just keeps coming into our buildings. We’re going to have a lot more damage,” said Jenkins, who owns Vidalia Dock and Storage

Moland said the Coast Guard tested wake impact before making the decision. The tests indicated sandbagging and other measures to protect most of the area could withstand the wakes if the vessels were ordered to move through the areas slowly.

It’s not clear how long barges would only be able to move one at a time through the section. The river is expected to stay high in some places for weeks.