Special Report: Historic high waters disrupt cargo, create navigation hazards and threaten channels

The greatest flooding of the Mississippi River Basin in over 80 years completely shut down river traffic, displaced thousands of residents and caused what is likely to be billions in dollars of property damage.

Over 6.8 million acres were flooded and over 10,000 people were forced from their homes during the most significant flooding since 1927, when over 600,000 people were displaced and about 500 people died.

High water on the Mississippi near Baton Rouge closed the river to commercial traffic in May. Levels reached nearly 50 feet there, 10 feet above the level needed for normal operations. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Sections of the Ohio, Arkansas, Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers were shut down, causing jams of as much as 50 tows before the rivers were opened again to commercial traffic. High water also contributed to two separate casualties in which tows lost control at the Upper Baton Rouge Bridge. One tow hit the bridge; the other tow hit two docks, resulting in the sinking of three barges.

Record flood stages were recorded in Cairo, Ill. (61.72 feet); New Madrid (48.35 feet) and Caruthersville, Mo. (47.61); and Vicksburg (57 feet) and Natchez, Miss. (61.95), according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Companies have not been able to conduct normal operations in over two months. And as the crest moved downriver, it paralyzed the entire river system, halting water traffic on a waterway that sees 500 million tons of cargo every year.

Tows waiting for the river to reopen are stacked up along the shore at New Orleans. (Brian Gauvin photo)

"It has greatly impacted our company, and we continue to be impacted to this very moment (June 2)," said Steve Crowley, vice president of marine operations at Marquette Transportation of Paducah, Ky.

"We are living history right now," said Steve Glenn, port captain for Luhr Bros. Inc. of Columbia, Ill. "This is the highest anyone has ever seen in our lives."

Stuck, and carrying less cargo
River closures began in early May. When reopened, many of these sections limited traffic to one tow at a time. The closures included:

– Lock No. 2 on the Arkansas River, which was shut down on May 6 and did not reopen until May 23.

– The Mississippi River from mile marker 844 to 849, which was shut down from May 6 to May 11 because of the danger of vessel wakes overtopping the floodwall protecting Caruthersville, Mo.

Bill Grantham, Ingram Barge Co.'s general manager in Port Allen, in the Baton Rouge area, stands on the deck of his office barge, which is 200 feet farther inshore than it would be in times of normal high water. The Mississippi River stood at 5 to 6 feet above normal flood stage. (Brian Gauvin photo)

– The Mississippi from mile 350 to mile 365, which was shut down May 16 to 17 to protect the Vidalia flood barrier, the Natchez waterfront and the ACOE levee system.

– The Mississippi from mile maker 228 to 237, which was closed from May 20 to 23 after the line vessel Crimson Gem struck the Upper Baton Rouge Bridge. When the river reopened, over 50 tows were waiting to go southbound.

– The Atchafalaya River from mile 0 to mile 75, which has been closed since May 16 because the Morgan City/Port Allen gauge exceeded 7.5 feet. As of June 3, the river was still closed and will not reopen until the water drops below 7.5 feet, according to Lt. j.g. Brian Dochtermann, a spokesman at the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit, Baton Rouge. As a result, the Morgan City/Port Allen alternate route from mile 35 to mile 65 is also closed.

Numerous sections of the river were open as of June 3, but with restrictions. As a result, many companies just shut down their operations on the river for up to three weeks to wait for water levels to start going down. "We tied up our barges and waited for it to crest," said Glenn, whose company shut down barges for between two and three weeks. "We didn't want to be anywhere near a levee or a seawall in case it broke."

Even when tows are running, they are not at full capacity. "I can tell you it has been hundreds of barges from my company that have not been utilized because of the flood," said Crowley.

Patricia I. Hart, with the help of assist tugs, pushes a 20-barge tow under the Highway 190 bridge in the Mississippi north of Baton Rouge. Usually one assist tug would be required at this difficult turn, but with the high water two were assigned to keep towboats under control. (Brian Gauvin photo)

The Coast Guard put in place numerous safety restrictions along sections of the river including: limiting tows to 20 barges, the establishment of safety zones which require tows to move one at a time, requiring towing assist vessels for southbound and northbound traffic and permitting transit only in the daytime.

According to Z. Dave Deloach, owner of Deloach Marine Service of Port Allen, La., his company is moving 50 percent fewer barges than normal on the Intracoastal Waterway.

"We're cutting back to a capacity that is about 25 to 30 percent of the normal operating capacity on a boat," said Deloach. This was done because of the difficulty in operating a tow in the fast currents. "You have to be able to control your tow. If you have a tow of barges and you find out you can't control them, you're in trouble," said Deloach. "I would say safety is our No. 1 priority."

Since tows are often stuck or taking much longer to deliver cargo because of navigation restrictions, operating costs are higher, while the capacity to deliver goods has declined. And the problem won't go away when water levels go down. The system has become imbalanced from a logistical standpoint, said Sandor J. Toth, publisher of River Transport News.

Treacherous navigation
Those captains who remained on the river faced unprecedented challenges as the high water and fast currents made navigation perilous.

"Once the river is flooding to a point where the water has no where to go but straight down the river, we're just dealing with a tremendous current," said Capt. Perry Maupin, of Golding Barge Line in Vicksburg, Miss. Maupin spoke on May 24 while on break as the towboat John Reid Golding was loading in Memphis, Tenn. "It is something that nobody has ever seen — the current running that fast and that hard." As a result, Maupin has to watch out for drift and clearances.

Maupin said he had to worry about bridge clearances in Vicksburg and Natchez that he never had to be concerned about in the past.

The high water has changed the entire look of the river. "There are no buoys out there. You have to have someone who knows where you can and can't be," said Steve Golding, president of Golding Barge Line.

A towboat and its construction barges support work on a weak spot in the levee near the Morganza Spillway some 40 miles above Baton Rouge on the Mississippi. High water levels required the opening of the Morganza Spillway to divert water away from the river. (Brian Gauvin photo)

The strong currents may also have changed the navigation channels and sand and mud may have been deposited in unforeseen areas. Capt. Randy Henson, fleet coordinator for the Ingram Capital Fleet in Baton Rouge, said that mariners are also coping with large debris, such as logs, coming down the river. Many bridges have become obstacle courses as the high water created new eddies. And the fenders on many bridges are underwater. In addition, vessels simply can't get to some facilities to load or unload cargo because the docks are underwater, according to Maupin.

Some companies changed the crews on their boats due to the unprecedented high water levels. "We have been flying some of my aces up north to bring tows south," said Golding. "These captains are experiencing some currents that have never existed before when you see water moving this fast."

The flow rates for the Mississippi River are also setting records. Rates measured in Cairo, Ill., Memphis, Tenn., Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss., and Red River Landing, La., have exceeded both the 1927 and 1937 floods. For example, the flow rate at Vicksburg was 2,272,000 cubic feet per second, or a volume of water equivalent to 25 Niagara Falls, according to Bob Anderson, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Region. In 1937, the flow rate at Vicksburg was 2,046,000 cubic feet per second and in 1927 it was 1,806,000 cubic feet per second.

Everyone interviewed for this article stressed safety. Maupin has been going over the safety drills with his crew and warning them of the challenges of working in high water. He has also told his crew to be extremely careful tying off and making sure that lines don't break.

"The danger level is so elevated with the river being like it is," said Maupin. "It has made me much more cautious."

Henson said the dangerous conditions mean that everyone is working together. "None of us have ever seen this water before. I just pass on all the information I can to them," he said.

What happens next?
Many people do not expect to resume normal operations for several weeks after the flooding. Glenn does not expect a return to normal until late June or early July. "It's a lot of water and it will take a lot of time for it to run out," he said.

On June 2, Crowley said water levels in the Ohio Valley were back within the normal high-water operating levels. However, the water level in Baton Rouge has to fall below 40 feet for normal tows to return. The highest stage of 44.96 feet was reached in Baton Rouge on May 19. "It is a slow fall, I will tell you that. The system has a problem with the sheer amount of water that was produced in many areas," he said. "It was close to a perfect storm in terms of the Ohio River Valley and the Upper Mississippi River Valley producing above normal rates of water."

Near New Orleans, the Bonnet Carrie Spillway gates were opened to let water from the Mississippi flow into Lake Pontchartrain. (Brian Gauvin photo)

But getting vessel traffic back on course is just one of the problems those on the river could face. Crowley is concerned about the condition of the navigation channels. "There has been so much volume," he said. "It has moved millions of tons of sediment, sand, mud, etc." Crowley said a worst-case scenario is the river dropping too quickly, before it has a chance to scour out the channels.

But will there be enough money to take care of dredging and clearing the channels? "If we don't have the dredging and the funds, the Corps of Engineers — and industry — could be battling a different scenario in the next couple of months," said Crowley. "That would be ironic, to go from record-setting floods to not having a stable channel."

Tom Holden, Corps of Engineers deputy commander of the New Orleans District told the Louisiana Levee Board in mid-May that the corps will have exhausted its 2011 budget for dredging navigation channels on the Mississippi by mid-June, according to news reports.

Flooding hits home
Some companies had to cope with flooding in their hometowns and offices. The parking lot of Golding Barge Line was underwater during the height of the flood and the company had to move to another office. The original office consists of modular structures used while Golding plans a new complex. When Golding installed the modular offices two and a half years ago, he put them at the level of the 100-year flood, but he decided to raise them another two feet, when it became clear the flood was coming.

Numerous sections of the river were closed during May, but some reopened in early June with restrictions. As a result, many towboat companies decided to shut down their operations for up to three weeks to wait for water levels to start going down. (Brian Gauvin photo)

"That two feet is the amount of freeboard we have between the floors and the water," he said. "I am asking myself now, when we are ready to build, how high is high enough?"

As the floodwaters recede, Golding has faith that the industry will bounce back. "I know the stress level has been high, but I have never sent the resilience that I have seen in my crews," he said. Ever since the flooding began, he said friends in the industry from all over the country called to offer help.

"For the past five years Mississippi has been hammered and hammered hard," Golding said, referring to Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, tornadoes and now the epic flooding of the river. "But these people are tough. I am convinced the industry and all of the people affected will come back stronger."

By Professional Mariner Staff