It may not be the worst, but it’s bad enough.
The springtime floods of 2011 have seen some of the highest water in history on the Mississippi River and other parts of the inland navigation system. At times they have shut down rail and barge lanes, slowed or halted factory operations and cut into grain ship loadings and chemical barge operations in the Gulf of Mexico region.
With some good luck and hope for less rain, key ports, including the Port of New Orleans, fought to remain open. Early fears that this could rival the Great Flood of 1993, which turned much of the river system into a vast inland lake for months and crippled commercial navigation, wouldn’t come to pass.
But although keeping New Orleans and some other port areas open was a day-to-day proposition, as flood crests rolled southward and river managers flooded other areas to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge, there was still plenty of impact on freight operations as high water levels and fast currents sloshed across rail lines, bottled up river locks and slowed big ships.
Major cross-country railroads already had worked through weeks of flood and storm delays in the central United States and Canada, sometimes detouring cargoes over long alternate routes to get around tracks flooded or filled with debris.
Smaller railroads, though, had no such options.
When Vicksburg, Miss., shut a floodgate early this month, it also shut operations there for Vicksburg Southern Railroad for what was expected to be several weeks. That was also the latest in a string of tough weather problems for owner Watco.
Rick Webb, CEO of the short line operator, said Watco’s Alabama Southern Railroad earlier had been hit hard by powerful tornadoes that ravaged Alabama, while other storms damaged the company’s Louisiana Southern, Vicksburg Southern, Mississippi Southern and Alabama Warrior railroads.
Even while the Port of New Orleans reminded customers that it was open for business, locks in that area reported long delays for vessels trying to get through, and other locks on rivers connecting to the Mississippi had to close.
As the flooding worsened, billion-dollar chemical and petroleum tank barge operator Kirby warned that the dent it foresaw in second quarter profit as late as April 27 might turn out to be deeper.
Kirby was monitoring refiners’ operations in Louisiana, access to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway its vessels use to reach Texas ports such as Houston and Corpus Christi, plus river flood gauges and the weather forecasts. If the main east-west part of the Intracoastal Waterway closed, Kirby said, it could stay shut for weeks, affect overall tank barge operations and be one of the last areas to recover.
But major floods can hamper freight movement seriously even if the Coast Guard doesn’t close some river areas and the Army Corps of Engineers continues to work its locks. Barges can break loose from towing cables in fast water, while their towboats and ocean ships are warned to avoid churning wake that can ripple over the tops of fragile, waterlogged levies.
“Shipping and supply chain contacts, as well as transportation providers in the rail and barge sectors, indicate that supply chain disruption has already begun in earnest,” said Matthew Troy of Susquehanna Financial Group. He said several major freight railroads would benefit from a hit to the river freight system that would last into June.
And the damage could be residual. As of last week, the flooding had covered some 3 million acres of farmland in the Midwest and South, preventing farmers from planting critical crops such as corn, wheat and cotton. That could erode rail and barge traffic during the summer-fall harvest. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said damages to agriculture alone could reach $300 million in his state. And Louisiana is just one of nine states affected so far, the others being Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Even as navigation returned to normal last week on the Upper Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers, the floods forced interruptions to traffic on the Cumberland, Arkansas and Red rivers and even parts of the Lower Mississippi at times.
Ingram Barge limited its traffic to daylight hours only from Cairo, Ill., to Baton Rouge, La. It notified customers on May 16 that an Intracoastal Waterway route from Port Allen north of Baton Rouge down to Morgan City, La., had closed. And as the Mississippi’s waters topped a levee at Vidalia, La., the Coast Guard closed a 15-mile section of river.
Through the first week of May, the unloading of grain barges at the Gulf of Mexico was down 14 percent from normal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, and conditions were getting worse. The USDA said the total movement of grain barges on the river system for that latest week was down 66 percent from a year earlier, and fewer ocean ships were entering the area to get grain
Refineries around Baton Rouge, La., and farther south were fighting to keep operating, and fears they might close already had pushed up gasoline prices at a time of still-tepid overall demand. Economists said this year’s fuel spike and storms could slow the recovery.
Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.