“There is a lot of water out there” is a bit of an understatement. Torrential rains in April led to the highest flood levels along the Mississippi River seen in decades. At the height of flooding, an estimated 276,000 acres in Mississippi were under water, including the Yazoo Backwater area and land within the levees.
“We haven’t seen water this high in the Mississippi River since 1973, which was 35 years ago,” said Frank Worley, chief of public affairs, Vicksburg District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The river crested at 50.8 feet at the Vicksburg gauge April 19, compared to the 1973 crest of 51.6 at the same location. Considering the amount of water, it is remarkable there wasn’t more business disruption.
“The levee system held up well,” Worley said. “The flood damage reduction infrastructure appears to be working well. The levee boards lead the flood fight. We are in there to support them. It is a difficult and complex task, and we are ready to assist. We had a number of sand boils come up, but that is natural when managing an earthen levee system. We have patrolled the levees either in the daytime or 24 hours per day as needed. We will continue to monitor the situation.”
There were a couple of accidents with barges striking the Vicksburg Bridge due to high current volume. The U.S. Coast Guard established some new guidelines for transiting the bridge during the high water event. Fewer barges were allowed and barges were required to have higher horsepower and more experienced crewmembers transiting the bridge during the high water. The volume of barge traffic was affected, but figures weren’t available as to the economic impact of the slowdown.
‘Driven by the river’
The Port of Greenville shut down in mid-April because of the high water.
“We really don’t know when we will be back in business,” said Bubba Dobbins, terminal supervisor at the port. “It is all driven by what the river does. It will recede real slow. It might be several weeks.”
A number of industries in Greenville are impacted. Dobbins said the businesses are still running production, but don’t currently have the capacity to ship goods out on the river.
Twelve people are employed at the port. Instead of laying them off during the high water, they have doing some work helping the levee board.
Dobbins said the flooding was the worst he had seen.
“I haven never seen anything like this in the past 15 years,” he said. “I don’t think you can compare this to anything except the high mark of 1973. Everyone is bearing the brunt of it and doing on the best they can. No one besides us is completely shut down. The shipyards can do things and other facilities keep going. Everyone seems to be bearing up real well.”
On the Tenn-Tom
On the other side of the state along the Tennessee-Tombigbee (Tenn-Tom) Waterway, high water has not impacted shipping.
“Our waterway is so well regulated with our series of locks and dams that it has had very little impact on our operations,” said Mike Tagert, administrator of the Tenn-Tom Waterway District headquartered in Columbus. “We’ve looked at it and monitored the situation. We are well regulated with the series of locks and dams that controls the water flow. We are in a better position from that standpoint strictly than the Mississippi this time of year. We are certainly concerned about their situation, but it doesn’t have as much impact on us as far as water flow. We have the ability to maintain the water level we need.”
With concerns about the drought in the mid South right now, any rain in the long run will be good for region. “But that doesn’t help the situation for our friends on the lower Mississippi right now,” Tagert said.
The Tenn-Tom also has advantages at time of drought. The Tenn-Tom saved companies millions in 1988 when a summer drought closed the Mississippi River to barge traffic. Unaffected by low water conditions, the waterway proved to be a viable alternative route to the Mississippi and kept plants in the Ohio Valley and Midwestern States supplied with essential raw materials needed for continued operation for nearly two months until the Mississippi River became navigable again.
Even with occasional disruptions caused by too much or not enough rainfall, excess rainfall, barge transportation in general is increasingly attractive. That is because barges can move freight at only approximately one-tenth of the fuel cost of highway transportation.
“The economic picture on the water is very positive,” Tagert said. “It has a bright future. The analogy that is so striking to me is that one ton of cargo on commercial trucks can go about 59 miles on one gallon of gas. That one ton of cargo on one gallon of fuel can go over 550 miles on a barge. With today’s prices on fuel, it is certainly highlighting the capabilities of the barge industry.”
Wayne Mansfield, executive director, Warren County Port Commission and Economic Development Foundation, said his organization seeing increasing demand for barge transportation.
“Our barge builders stay pretty busy,” Mansfield said. “We do have one builder here, Big River Shipbuilders, that is looking to do a possible expansion because there is an increased need for barges on the river. Barge transportation is cheaper than any other kind. Certainly you can ship a lot more material by barge than you can by truck.
“We have 12 industries in our port, and all of them utilize river transportation. Collectively, you are looking at about 2,000 direct employees in addition to indirect impacts. The impact of the river on our economy is very strong and the reason for location of most of our industries is to utilize river transportation.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.