NEW ORLEANS -- The Coast Guard has interrupted shipping along the major artery for moving grain from farms in the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico over fears that the bulging Mississippi River could strain levees that protect hundreds of thousands from flooding. Already, thousands have sought refuge from floodwaters up and down the river.
The Coast Guard said it closed the Mississippi River at the port in Natchez, Miss., because barge traffic could increase pressure on the levees. Heavy flooding from Mississippi tributaries has displaced more than 4,000 in the state, about half of them upstream from Natchez in the Vicksburg area.
Several barges were idled at Natchez at the time of the closure, and many more could back up along the lower Mississippi. It wasn't clear when the river would reopen, but port officials said the interruption could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars per day.
The closure is the latest high-stakes decision made to protect homes and businesses that sit behind levees and floodwalls along the river. To take pressure off levees surrounding heavily populated New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the key Morganza Spillway, choosing to flood more rural areas with fewer homes. Most residents in the path of the Morganza's floodwaters have heeded the call to leave their homes.
The corps earlier opened another spillway, Bonne Carre upriver from New Orleans, to divert the river into nearby Lake Pontchartrain. But unlike Morganza, its opening doesn't threaten to flood homes.
Bernadine Turner, who lives in a mandatory evacuation zone near Krotz Springs, La., spent a third day Monday moving her things out. Water from the Morganza opening was not expected to reach the town about 40 miles west of Baton Rouge for several days, but most residents were taking no chances.
"There's no doubt it's going to come up. We don't have flood insurance, and most people here don't. Man, it would be hard to start all over," she said.
Economic pain from the flooding could be felt far from the South because of the river closure. During the spring, the Mississippi is a highway for towboats pushing barges laden with corn, soybeans and other crops brought down from the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi river systems. Farm products come down the river to a port near New Orleans to be loaded onto massive grain carriers for export.
At least 10 freight terminals along the lower Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans have suspended operations because of the high water, said Roy Gonzalez, acting president of the Gulf States Maritime Association. In many cases, their docks are already at water level or going under, he said.
Vessels scheduled to use the terminals will either have to wait out the high water or divert to other terminals or ports. Additional costs for delaying any one vessel routinely run $20,000 to $40,000 per day, port officials say.
It's not clear how long it will take for normal operations to return at Natchez and other terminals. The river is expected to crest Saturday in Natchez at 63 feet, down a half-foot than earlier predictions, but almost five feet above a record set in 1937. It could take weeks for the water to recede to normal levels.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Kevin McGill and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans.; Mary Foster in Tensas Parish, La.; and Holbrook Mohr and Shelia Byrd in Mississippi.