River now open to barge traffic

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, May 18, 2011

NATCHEZ — In an effort not to trample on or over Hesco walls at the Vidalia Riverfront, the U.S. Coast Guard in Natchez halted barge traffic on the Mississippi River Monday and Tuesday, before opening up traffic on a limited basis Tuesday evening.

Had the channel remained closed, it could’ve brought traffic to a standstill up and down the nation’s busiest waterway, which moves about 500 million tons of cargo each year.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Moland said the decision was made to deter waves made by barge wakes from topping or damaging the instant levees on Vidalia’s riverfront.

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“The concern we were trying to address (is) a series of temporary flood protections at Vidalia, La., installed in some of their lower (areas),” said Moland, who is chief of response for the lower sector of the Mississippi River.

“There’s a concern (that) wakes of towboats could potentially damage the flood protections or overtop them.”

Moland said the coast guard started at 11 a.m. Tuesday working with the City of Vidalia, U.S. Corps of Engineers and towing vessel industry representatives Tuesday, running tests in the area to determine the impact of wakes on the protective barriers.

“The captain of the port decided based on observation, to reopen the waterway, providing minimized traffic,” Moland said.

The tests indicated sandbagging and other measures to protect most of the area could withstand the wakes if the vessels were ordered to move through the areas at the slowest possible speed as is safe.

In addition, the coast guard will allow only one barge or other vessels to pass at a time within a 15-miles of Natchez in the center of the river.

What happens is towing vessels moving north or southbound will stall and line up at either end of the 15-mile “safety zone,” and as one vessel finishes transit, another will be given approval to proceed, Moland said.

It is not clear how long barges would only be able to move one at a time through the safety zone with the river expected to remain at record heights possibly for weeks.

“These levels of floodwaters are entirely unprecedented (in Natchez),” Moland said.

Moland said all affected agencies would continue to monitor the situation near the Natchez port to determine when restrictions will be lifted.

“We will continue to watch the situation and stay in constant communication with Vidalia and Army Corps (of Engineers) and (towing) industry and make sure facilitate commerce as much as possible and protect the City of Vidalia.”

On a typical day, 600 barges move up and down the river, according to Bob Anderson, spokesman for the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. A single barge can carry as much cargo as 70 tractor-trailers or 17 rail cars.

Interruptions of river traffic has potential to cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for every day of idled barges carrying coal, timber, iron, steel and more than half of America’s grain exports.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.