If your livelihood depends on safely navigating the Mississippi River, there are numbers that have nothing to do with revenue and expenses that can chill you to the bone.
If you’re Austin Golding, that number is 51.
Fifty-one feet is as high as the River’s water level at the Vicksburg flood gauge can go before really bad things start happening. The 2008 flood brought the River to 51 feet exactly. In two weeks, according to projections the National Weather Service made April 24, that will be a pipe dream. Snow melt in the upper Mississippi Valley and torrential rains in the Midwest have officials in every River town south of Memphis bracing for the highest water the region has seen since 1927.
Golding, who handles vessel logistics for Golding Barge Line in Vicksburg, said in an interview last week with the Mississippi Business Journal that the forecast 52.5 feet crest the River is expected to reach May 13 will essentially shut down all southbound barge traffic for his company.
“Also, the terminals we service bringing gas, diesel and any other kind of refined petroleum, it’ll be interesting how many of those can actually operate once the water crests,” he said. “That will also be the case with any coal plant and any other kind of commodity going into any kind of port or storage facility. That would make our part of the business totally freeze. It has the potential to be catastrophic in an environmental sense and in a business sense. You can imagine the stranglehold it would put on the consumer if the mass transit of fuel and energy products and food products are put in a bind.
“The big issue with this is a lot of facilities and operational ports are built to a 100-year flood plain,” Golding continued. “Well, this would be it. As long as they were built above 51 feet, which is where it crested in here in 2008, you’d be high and dry.”
To make matters worse, the April 24 flood forecast was issued before nearly 10 more inches of rainfall fell on the Arkansas river basin and in the Ohio River Valley. That additional rain, according to a press release from the Delta Council, could push Vicksburg’s crest to 54 feet. In 1927, generally considered the worst flood in the River’s recorded history, it crested at 58.4 feet.
After the waters receded, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built an extensive levee system, with the hopes of preventing a similar disaster. The levees have held, too, with the exception of a sand boil here and there. That’s the extent of the good news.
“I’ve read a lot where people are saying this would be the second-highest (River level) since 1927,” he said. “What’s lost in that is this will be the highest River these levees have ever seen because the levee system was built after that 1927 flood.
“The second thing I think a lot of people don’t understand is it may crest on, say, May 13, but this water is going to be sustained at that level for weeks, perhaps a month or so. That sustained pressure on all these levees, we’re definitely going to find out where the weak spots are. I know in previous years, like in 2008, there have been some pretty suspect spots.”
The Corps of Engineers said in a press release last Thursday morning that they are already working to strengthen the levee near Eagle Lake, just north of Vicksburg. Gov. Haley Barbour said in a press conference last Thursday that, based on what the Corps has told him, “the levees are up to this.”
If the River gets high enough and the current is treacherous enough to shut down southbound barge traffic, Golding Barge won’t be totally out of business. It can still put its tugboats to use. It just won’t be pushing barges. Golding said the tugs could be deployed for what River folks call “floating storage,” in which commodities are kept on stationary barges because the ports and terminals are under water. The real financial hit, Golding said, would be absorbed by people in the business of transporting those commodities from a port to their destination.
Even with the possibility of floating storage revenue, Golding said if barge traffic is shut down for a month, his company would take a seven-figure lick.
“That’ll keep you up at night.”
Mississippi’s casinos are already up most every night. In Natchez, Isle of Capri officials are working with city and county officials in best assessing what to do with the boat once the water starts to rise.
Jill Haynes, Isle of Capri spokesperson, said the boat can adjust a few hundred feet in either direction, though when the water begins to reach 60 feet, the expected crest, moving the casino won’t help keep the doors open because its access road will be underwater.
“We’ll continue to monitor the situation, and we’ll execute our plan should the need to close arise,” Haynes said.
The Isle of Capri closed for a month during the 2008 flood.
“From what we understand, with most of Natchez being up on a bluff, we’ll be somewhat unaffected outside of the low-lying areas,” said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc., the city’s economic development agency. Aside from Isle of Capri, Natchez’s low-lying areas are largely empty.
In Tunica, the parent company of Harrah’s Casino has already planned to close that facility May 1 in anticipation of rising water. Horseshoe Casino and Roadhouse Casino will close May 2, according to a press release from Caesars Mid-South, which owns the three casinos.
Ameristar Casino in Vicksburg did not close in 2008, and doesn’t anticipate having to do so this time around, spokesperson Celeste Burkes said.
“We continually monitor the situation and try to anticipate the next steps.”
On last Wednesday afternoon, the Twitter Account for Ameristar Vicksburg tweeted, “If you who heard old man river was coming to visit us we will be open for the duration of his visit. We are too high on the hill for him.”
Golding knows that’s not the case for his place. He fully expects to be boating into his office by the first few days of May. By then, if forecasters are right, water the post-1927 levee system has never encountered will have arrived.
“The current and the water will eat away at them and eventually, if that goes on long enough, the levee will collapse. If that happens …”
And then his voice trailed off.
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