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Rushing water sparks barge traffic, stressful situations for pilots in Louisiana

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
June 25, 2019, 4:15:47 PM EDT

Historic flooding has ruined countless acres of crops, sparked evacuations, opened levees, and affected marine life in the nation's heartland, and consumers will pay the price for one industry that has been choked by the Mississippi River flooding.

High water and flooding is delaying critical shipments of goods through inland waterways like the Mississippi River, and the delays could end up costing millions of Americans at the checkout counter.

AccuWeather National Weather Reporter Jonathan Petramala visited Louisiana to see the congestion firsthand and interviewed Ron Zornes, the director of corporate operations for the Canal Barge Company in New Orleans.

"It’s by far the most sustained impact that we have seen in recent memory," Zornes told Petramala.

High water along the nation's inland waterways has caused closures and slowdowns and a backlog of barges that push billions of dollars worth of cargo from corn to chemicals every year.

Screen Shot 2019-06-24 at 12.09.17 PM.png

A barge tries to maneuver the Mississippi River's swift waters in Louisiana. (Jonathan Petramala)

"When our industry is shut down or when we have logistical problems, consumers may see that in higher prices, manufacturers see that in delayed manufacturing processes, farmers can’t get their goods to market, so it does have an impact," Zornes said.

According to Zornes, just one barge can carry the same amount of cargo as more than 1,000 semi trucks. Plus, they are much more fuel efficient than any other form of transportation, but since they’re sitting in the current holding pattern, that efficiency is lost.

"I am sure costs have already been passed on to consumers in the form of possibly higher fuel prices and things like that. Prices that likely won't go back down until the rivers do," Zornes said.


The Baton Rouge Police Department shared photos Thursday, May 30, 2019, taken during levee patrols as the swollen Mississippi River continues to rise. Water has risen to several feet within the top of the levee to the left of the image. (Facebook/Baton Rouge Police Department)

"The high water and fast current are making ship movement very difficult. In addition, high water makes many of the anchorages unusable. I’m sure that the delays caused by high water and fast current are having a negative impact on business," executive director of the Port of South Louisiana Paul Aucoin told AccuWeather in an interview.

Delays also lead to a ripple effect: if a ship doesn't unload on time, it backs up other barges that are waiting and ready to unload.

"When ships cannot be loaded or unloaded at scheduled times because of the high water and swift current, it causes them to charge a demurrage fee which, I am told is approximately $25,000 per day," Aucoin said.

Aucoin said the higher and faster river caused congestion at the mouth of the Mississippi last year as well, however, it was not as significant as this year.

"While high river is something we experience seasonally, these current high river levels are an anomaly," Communications Manager of the Port of New Orleans Jessica Ragusa told AccuWeather.

The Associated Branch Pilots and the Crescent River Pilots continue to guide vessels and make sure conditions are safe.

"The prolonged high river levels have created challenges for the maritime industry. Safety has to be a priority for everyone involved in all aspects of moving ships and cargo," Ragusa said.

A group of elite mariners who steer tankers, freighters and cruise ships up and down the Mississippi are under intense stress as the high water is moving water at unprecedented speeds.

Michael Bopp

Captain Michael Bopp, president of the Crescent River Port Pilots, speaks to AccuWeather's Jonathan Petramala.

"The river pilots that navigate the Mississippi River are doing a great job in these hazardous conditions," Aucoin said.

Petramala spoke to port pilots about the stress they have been under.

“It’s so dangerous right now that the pilot's skill is tested to the nth degree,” Captain Michael Bopp, president of the Crescent River Port Pilots told Petramala.

The pilot group consists of highly skilled mariners that climb on board and guide every foreign flagged ship, from cruise to cargo ships, around a hundred miles along the Mississippi.

“It is not for the faint of heart, you have to know what you’re doing,” Bopp said.

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High water means faster currents, and now the river in New Orleans is moving at about 8 feet per second or about 5 1/2 miles per hour, Petramala reported.

“They’re [the barges are] three football fields [in length] and they don’t have a set of brakes on them, when you add the current, it’s a whole other element,” Bopp said.

It the most treacherous body of water in the Western Hemisphere, according to Bopp. An accident could not only cost lives and harm the environment, but if the river were shut down it could cost billions of dollars.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Petramala.

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