VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — Cargo was slowly moving along the bloated Mississippi River after a costly daylong standstill, while officials kept an eye on the lower Delta where thousands of acres of farmland could be swamped by water that is inching closer to the top of a levee.
The Coast Guard for much of Tuesday closed a 15-mile stretch at Natchez, Miss., north of New Orleans, blocking vessels heading toward the Gulf of Mexico and others trying to return north after dropping off their freight.
Later in the day, barges that haul coal, timber, iron, steel and more than half of America's grain exports were again allowed to pass, but at the slowest possible speed. Such interruptions could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for each day the barges are idled, as the toll from the weeks of flooding from Arkansas to Louisiana continues to mount.
Wakes generated by passing barge traffic could increase the strain on levees designed to hold back the river, officials said.
Some of the worst flooding in Mississippi has been in the Vicksburg area, where people have been living in shelters for nearly two weeks. It's anyone's guess when they'll be able to return to what's left of their homes. The river is expected to crest there Thursday, but the governor said it could take until late June for water to retreat in certain places.
"Lord only knows when it's going to recede. It's so much water," said evacuee Steven Coles, who's staying at Hawkins United Methodist Church with 20 others.
To the south, Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton said he met Monday with Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh and other officials when they discussed the river closing, the latest tough move to try to ensure the levees are not breached.
"You have two hospitals, a convention center, a hotel and a spa on the Louisiana side. On our side, we have a restaurant and bar and several very old, historic buildings that we are trying to save," Middleton said.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Moland said tests indicated sandbagging and other measures to protect most of the area could withstand the wakes if the vessels were ordered to move through at the slowest possible speed. It's not clear how long barges would only be able to move one at a time.
Such interruptions could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for every day of idled barges as the toll from the weeks of Mississippi flooding continues to escalate.
In Vidalia, La., across the river from Natchez, Carla Jenkins was near tears as she watched the first tows and barges move north after the reopening.