WINFIELD, Mo – The flooding in the Midwest has brought freight traffic on the upper Mississippi to a standstill, stranding more than 100 barges loaded with grain, cement, scrap metal, fertilizer and other products while shippers wait for the water to drop on the Big Muddy.
"We're basically experiencing total shutdown," said Larry Daily, president of Alter Barge Line Inc. of Bettendorf, Iowa.
While the bottleneck is costing him and other barge operators tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue per day, June is a slow shipping period on the river compared with the late-summer harvest, the shutdown is expected to last only a few weeks, and it involves primarily non-perishable goods. So no major damage to the economy is expected.
Among the freight being held up: corn and soybeans headed downstream for New Orleans, where grain is loaded onto ships for export. Construction supplies and petroleum products headed upstream on the Mississippi are not getting through either.
Because of the high water, the Army Corps of Engineers has closed 13 locks along the upper Mississippi since June 12. As of Friday, nine locks remained closed, a roughly 215-mile stretch between Illinois City, Ill., and Winfield, Mo., northwest of St. Louis.
The situation along the Mississippi in Missouri was improving Friday as government forecasters predicted crests sharply below 1993's record levels. Several communities up and down the Mississippi were still under inundated, however, including Lincoln County, Mo., where 300 to 350 homes were flooded after the water flowed over or through the levees.
In Old Monroe, 45 miles north of St. Louis, retired steelworker Bob Scott watched as the river puddled at the edge of his front yard. But he said he thought the river had stopped rising and his home might come through the flood unscathed.
"It's kind of harrowing, a lot of sleepless nights, worried about your property," said Scott, 61. "You work all your life for what little bit you get."
The locks use huge electric motors to open and close gates and valves, floating the barges up and down to different levels of the river as they make their way up and down the river. When the river floods, the Corps removes the motors to protect them from the water. When the locks shut down, barges can still move between them, but no farther.
Typically, a towboat pushes as many as 15 barges, each of them 12 feet high and 200 feet long, lashed together with steel cable. A single barge carries the equivalent of about 55 tractor-trailers.
Last year, between June 12 and July 1, 180 tows (a "tow" is a towboat and its set of barges) carried more than 2.5 million tons of goods through now-closed Lock 25 at Winfield. During that same period, 166 tows carrying 2.3 million tons of cargo passed through Lock 19, at Keokuk, Iowa, now closed, too.
As of Thursday, eight to 10 tows were stranded or sidelined on the upper part of the Mississippi River, said Lynn Muench, senior vice president at American Waterways Operators, an industry group.
"On a typical day at this time of year, there would be 40 to 60 tows on the upper Mississippi River, and the average tow carries the equivalent of 900 semi-trucks of product," she said.
Daily, the Iowa barge operator, said that he had 100 barges and two boats stranded at places along the river with such cargo as corn, soybeans, fertilizer, cement, animal feed, scrap metal and wind turbine towers. He estimated his business was losing $25,000 a day, and said that could rise to $40,000 when two more of his boats go idle soon.
The federal Maritime Administration Office said a long shutdown could add millions to the cost of moving grain and other commodities, but since the jam is expected to last only a few weeks, "no significant economic impact is foreseen for the region."