The Mississippi River

Troubles Travel Upstream

Frank Walsh, a soybean and corn farmer near Elwood, Ill., walks to the top of his grain bin, which is still half full from last year's crop.
Frank Walsh, a soybean and corn farmer near Elwood, Ill., walks to the top of his grain bin, which is still half full from last year's crop. (By Michael R. Schmidt For The Washington Post)
By Caroline E. Mayer and Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 5, 2005

ELWOOD, Ill. -- Frank Walsh bends over to examine his soybean crop. He shouldn't have to; in good years, the beans would be up to his chest, about 42 inches high. This year, as the result of a drought, they are just at his knees.

Drought may be the least of the Walsh family's worries these days, as farmers start to feel the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Just two weeks before harvest begins, Illinois farmers who rely on the Mississippi River to carry their soybeans and corn down river for export cannot be sure their crops can get through and whether higher transportation prices will drive down earnings. On Friday, the price for corn at the river grain elevator that the Walsh family uses was more than 20 percent lower than it was 10 days earlier.

"The river is saying, 'We don't want your corn,' " said Pat Dumoulin, who runs a 700-acre farm with her husband and two sons in Hampshire, Ill., about 50 miles north of Elwood.

The Mississippi is a river of commerce, an artery through which about 500 million tons of cargo each year, including tons of coal, timber, iron, steel and chemicals. About 60 percent of the nation's grain exports move down the river. The ports in Louisiana make up the largest port complex in the nation and are major terminals for oil and other petroleum products.

The extent of the damage upriver will depend on how soon and how completely the Mississippi and shipping facilities return to service.

On the Waterway

On Saturday, the river was reopened to traffic, but only to ships that extend no more than 35 feet below the waterline. Typically, ships are allowed to reach 45 feet below the water's surface. Areas that were hardest hit, like the Port of New Orleans, were turned into one-way channels, where ships have to wait for another to pass before they can go. They also have to run through one at a time at a dangerous turn at Algiers Point, in the heart of New Orleans.

From 30 to 40 percent of vessels are expected to be rerouted away from the Mississippi, said Michael Titone, president of the Mississippi River Maritime Association. While some are finding their ways to ports upriver that escaped Katrina's wrath, river buoys are gone and the channels are not clear, making it even more difficult to navigate.

Seven vessels were making their way out of the Mississippi yesterday, while 15 were making their way in. Despite traffic returning to nearly normal levels yesterday, some cargo-handling facilities are still in disarray, longshoremen may need backups as more ships are routed to cleared ports, and debris still rests below the surface.

Late Saturday, Tim Osborn, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's manager of regional operations, received an urgent call at his home in Lafayette, La. The pilots of a tanker full of about 100,000 tons of crude oil, or about 600,000 barrels, were blocked from entering Shell Oil Co.'s Motiva Enterprises LLC refinery dock on the Mississippi River at the town of Convent because of obstructions that might be lurking under the water.

The pilots and the Coast Guard needed the NOAA to navigate the waters and make sure the area was clear of obstruction. Meanwhile, the crude sat at anchor.

Osborn and others have spent the past few days on watercraft, mapping what underwater perils might exist for ships like the 850-foot-long tanker. Hurricane-deposited silt could cause a tanker to run aground. A collision with a sunk barge could do even more damage.

"Hundreds and hundreds of barges disappeared," said Edward W. Peterson, executive director of the Louisiana River Pilots Association. The barges carry an average of 1,600 tons of cargo, he said. "Nobody knows where they are."

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