Coast Guard Reopens Lower Mississippi River After Closure Sparks Massive Barge Jam

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by Tyler Durden
Friday, May 14, 2021 - 05:11 PM

Update (1327ET): The US Coast Guard has reopened part of the lower Mississippi River to vessel traffic near Memphis Friday afternoon after being shut down for two days following the discovery of a bridge crack. 

The river's closure created a logistical shitshow as more than1,000 barges filled with farm goods were unable to traverse the waterway. 

"Based on the information provided to us by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard has determined that transit under the I-40 bridge is safe for maritime traffic," said Coast Guard Capt. Ryan Rhodes, captain of the Port of Memphis.

Meanwhile, on land, with the I-40 bridge likely closed for weeks, if not months, traffic hell has been unleashed. 

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Earlier this week, in a routine bridge inspection, an engineer climbed onto the section of the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River and spotted a massive fracture in the frame that resulted in the immediate shutdown of the bridge on Wednesday. Traffic is being rerouted to Interstate 55 Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, creating traffic jams in the Memphis area. On the Mississippi River, the situation is much worse. Hundreds of barrages are piling up on either side of the bridge as the US Coast Guard has closed the critical waterway. 

After a routine inspection, officials with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) announced that the Hernando de Soto Bridge would be closed due to a crack on the bottom side of the bridge truss. 

Here's a diagram of the bridge and where the fracture in the beam occurred. 

A picture of the massive fractured beam. The repair could take weeks, if not months, to fix. 

While road traffic is chaotic in the Memphis metro area, a much larger and possibly underreported story is the closure of the lower Mississippi River that is a critical waterway for the transportation of farm goods. 

Reuters reports as of Thursday, the logjam of barrages swelled to 771. Coast guard officials closed the waterway Wednesday, preventing any vessel from passing underneath the bridge. 

"At the spot where the river is closed, 26 vessels with 430 barges are waiting to pass north, and 21 vessels with 341 barges are in the queue to go south, said Petty Officer Carlos Galarza," a Coast Guard spokesman told Reuters

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, citing USDA data, told Bloomberg that agricultural supplies on barges north of Memphis were 84% corn and about 13% soybeans. 

Galarza said a decision to reopen the waterway would occur when the TDOT completes their investigation of the fractured bridge. 

TDOT officials may "have a decision for river traffic" either today or in the coming days. 

At mile markers 736 and 737 on the lower Mississippi, the closure creates a logistical nightmare for vessels loaded with farm goods and destined for Gulf of Mexico export facilities to be loaded on large bulk carriers or other large ships for transport worldwide.