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Hurricane Ida threw teh barge industry into a tizzy along the Mississippi River

September 13, 2021   The Advocate

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Hurricane Ida threw the barge industry into a tizzy along the Mississippi River

The Advocate – Baton Rouge, LA – 9/13/21 – Kristen Mosbrucker


While the Mississippi River is open for commerce, the situation is far from normal, and it's unclear how long it may take to rebuild after Hurricane Ida.


"This event in scope and impact was greater than Katrina," said Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council, a trade organization that represents companies that operate along inland waterways.


Barges sunk and boats landed on roadways while the grain terminals along the Mississippi River were damaged.


"There are many barges that are unable to load or unload just as we are beginning to kick off a really good harvest in the United States," Calhoun said. "I know there is frustration about it; everybody is working as hard as they can to bring things back fully online."


Each day the Mississippi River is closed to commerce, the estimated economic loss is upward of $295 million, according to a report by the Port of New Orleans. As the river was closed for several days after Ida, that would amount to more than $1 billion of lost economic activity in Louisiana.


When the river rises above 18.5 feet, the U.S. Coast Guard typically halts all ship traffic along the river for safety reasons. After Ida made landfall on Aug. 29 at Port Fourchon, the storm forced the Mississippi River to flow in reverse. The storm caused dozens of barges to break free from their ports. The Kerner Swing Bridge in Lafitte was hit by a barge.


"The storm surge did come up the river, especially to New Orleans and we had reverse flow coupled with the winds. Several deep draft ships dragged their anchors," said Brett Bourgeois, executive director for the New Orleans Board of Trade, a membership organization for the maritime industry.


On a typical day, there are more than 100 vessels along the Mississippi River. On Monday morning, there were about 50 tugboats, according to marine traffic data.


It's still too early to estimate how much it may cost to rebuild after the storm.


"There's definitely going to be a shortage of barges," Bourgeois said. "What is happening is that you have a lot of barges filled with grain already waiting (to be unloaded). It's pretty significant anytime the river closes. For example, the ExxonMobil facility in Baton Rouge, that's one of the largest gasoline refineries in the South, and if they can't get crude oil, they can't make gasoline."


By Sept. 4, the lower Mississippi River was opened to all vessel traffic after the storm, but the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway remains closed, and deep draft vessels are restricted to operating only during the day. There were still some sunken barges in the river near the unincorporated community of Davant in Plaquemine Parish.


American Barge Line told customers transit delays are expected "well into September" as the industry looks to recover from the storm.