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River ports start recovery process, begin crunching the clean-up numbers

Varying degrees of recovery started last week at ports along the Mississippi River.

Having spent the better part of a month underwater, there were similar plans of action at each: Assess the damage, get it repaired and resume normal operations as quickly as possible.

The steel loading facility at the Greenville Port opened LAST Wednesday, said executive director Tommy Hart, but it will be this week at the earliest that the grain loading facility can come back online.

“Before we do that, we have to inspect the railroad track,” Hart said.

Hart, whose port closed May 2, began the process LAST Wednesday with FEMA officials of evaluating the cost of clean-up.

“You’ve got to carefully qualify that,” Hart said. “The issue I have is that a lot of this damage really won’t show up until weeks and months into the future, especially in our road and rail and dock services.”

That was the case after the flood of 2008, when the railroad tracks took on water and later split once operations resumed, the ground beneath them weakened from having been submerged for a prolonged period.

Hart would like to avoid that this time around, or at least have some financial help if and when a similar scenario occurs. Most assistance programs have a shelf life of only a few weeks.

“It’s just going to increase our maintenance costs, and there’s no assistance for that, not that I’m aware of,” Hart said. “We’re going to see if considerations can be given for that. Then, of course, you get into the position of having to prove that the damage was caused by the flood.”

In lost business alone, Hart estimated the port took a hit between $300,000 and $400,000 “just in terminal revenue,” which does not take into account that money being turned over down the supply chain once it leaves the facility.

“We had several companies that had to close completely. A lot of them were a mile and a half away from land. They were completely underwater.”

At the Vicksburg Port, last Monday afternoon marked the first time water levels allowed engineers to inspect almost every part of the facility. Port executive director Wayne Mansfield said the railroad that runs to the terminal, an overhead crane and storage warehouses seemed to have suffered the most damage. No part of the port has reopened since closing in the first week of May.

The port’s T-dock, the primary loading and unloading platform, is in relatively good shape, and had been given the green light for use. “We’ve got a bunch of barges stacked up on it,” Mansfield said.

Water levels need to fall to about 43 feet — flood stage is 42 feet — before engineers can reach the bridge crane, something Mansfield hopes will happen early this week.

“Our engineers are working on a preliminary report right now, based on what they’ve been able to inspect so far,” Mansfield said. “I don’t know when we’ll have any of the repairs completed. I hope to have the engineers report (Monday) so we can start looking at some of the costs. But we’ll have to do it in a phased process.”

Only two out of about 50 industries that use the port — LeTourneau Technologies and the International Paper Mill — had to shut down, Mansfield said.

Mansfield didn’t have an exact figure for business interruption costs, but said it would likely be a “minimum of $500,000. Then you have all the indirect costs, like your trucks and rail to move the product.”

The facility that made it the cleanest to the other side of the flood was the Natchez-Adams County Port. Anthony Hauer, port director, said the liquid loading dock was the only infrastructure that took on any water “but the best we can tell so far is that it didn’t have any damage to it.” The liquid loading dock was built to a slightly lower elevation than the concrete general cargo docks.

What little threat the port had of closing evaporated when the Morganza and Bonnet Carre spillways were opened in Louisiana, Hauer said.

“The roadways were never closed, we worked our distribution and warehousing as if it was just another day. We never went underwater.”

The news wasn’t nearly as good in Yazoo City. The Yazoo County Port along the Yazoo River closed in late April, said Henry Cote, executive director of the Yazoo County Chamber of Commerce.

Its timeline for reopening is less certain than its counterparts along the Mississippi River, because the Yazoo River’s banks are sinking along with the water.

“Right now my biggest problem is we’ve got a massive land slide and erosion around the liquid dock and the dry dock,” Cote said. At press time Cote hoped an engineering group with sonar capabilities could evaluate the extent of the erosion late last week. At least some dredging will have to be done before barge traffic can resume, he said.

“We just won’t know how much until the sonar is put on it. What I do know is that dredging is very, very expensive and not an easy process to get through.”

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