Hundreds of barges are stalled on the Mississippi River, clogging the main circulatory system for a farm-belt economy battered by a relentless, record-setting string of snow, rainstorms and flooding.
Railways and highways have been closed as well, keeping needed supplies from farmers and others, and limiting the crops sent to market.
For Chris Boerm, who manages transportation for Archer-Daniels-Midland, one of the nation’s largest agricultural commodities dealers and which has facilities in Cedar Rapids, the weather is an unyielding, ever-changing challenge.
He and his co-workers spend time carefully planning out the quickest way to get supplies to the people that need them, he said. But it’s tough staying ahead of the drenching rain.
“It’s sort of like Mike Tyson’s quote, everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the face, right?” Boerm said by telephone. “Every day we come in and we’ve got a plan. But then it rains three inches somewhere overnight where it wasn’t expected, and the plan changes.”
That means supplies they plan to move on one river may need to be rerouted to a different waterway, or offloaded onto a rail car or a truck, with the hope they won’t be delayed by the weather as well.
For example, when water reaches the wheel bearings on a freight car in a siding, it can’t be hauled long distances without an inspection — yet another potential delay.
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At just two locks along the upper Mississippi, almost 300 barges are being held in place as a result of high water and fast currents, according to Waterways Council, which tracks barge movements. And hundreds more are waiting in St. Louis, Cairo, Illinois and Memphis, Tennessee, said Deb Calhoun, the council’s senior vice president.
“It’s a big bottleneck,” Calhoun said.
The contiguous United States had its wettest January to May on record dating back to 1895, according to the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C.
Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri had their rainiest May on record, the center’s data shows, while Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois were all in the top 10.
While the rain will ease in the next few days across the central United States, the deluge will get started again next week, said Don Keeney, senior agricultural meteorologist at Maxar in Gaithersburg, Md.
As of Monday, 203 points along U.S. rivers were at flood stage, the majority of those on the Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries, according to the National Weather Service.
While high waters stop barge traffic, they also carry other dangers. Floodwaters have closed off interstate highways on a number of occasions and water itself. That overwhelms farm fields, sewer and septic systems and industrial plants along its banks, which can become quite toxic as it flows away from the river beds.
“We dealt with a wet fall, and then record snowfall in many places,” said Tim Eagleton, senior engineering specialist for FM Global, an industrial insurer.
“Of course, all that melts and comes down the Mississippi. Not only that, but we have had 200 percent-plus rainfall over a large part of that basin for months, and then a record-wet May in a lot of places.”
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The bottom line, according to Eagleton: “Very long duration flooding on the Mississippi River that can really start to wear on people.”
Almost 200 miles of the Mississippi has been shut down, he said.
Farmers are definitely feeling the crunch.
Iowa corn farmer Bob Hemesath, whose farm is about 35 miles west of the Mississippi River in Decorah, had planned to deliver about 20,000 bushels of corn to a Bunge Ltd. facility in McGregor in March and April.
Instead, he ended up sending the grain to a local ethanol plant because the facility was closed due to high water levels and still remains shuttered.
“We are going to be missing almost three months of river traffic, I don’t even know how we will get caught up.” he said.