Flooding Crimps Barging On Illinois, Ohio
Record-setting rains in the central and upper Midwest in the third week of February combined with melting snowpack to produce sudden and dramatic flooding across an arc from northern Louisiana and Texas to the Great Lakes, halting most commercial barging above St. Louis on the Ohio and Illinois rivers.
In some area the rain was accompanied by violent weather; the National Weather Service reported a dozen tornadoes February 24 across Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky.
According to Accuweather, an average month’s worth of rainfall fell on some central U.S. locations between February 19 and 22. The governors of Missouri, Indiana and Illinois declared disaster emergencies for parts of their states. Flood gauges at weather.gov showed only “moderate” flooding in lower reaches of the Upper Mississippi River.
The National Weather Service forecast another storm system across the middle Midwest and mid-South beginning late last week, dumping more rain on swollen rivers before moving to the East Coast, where it will snow in New England.
Peoria, Ill., was under a flood warning beginning February 25, when the Illinois River reached 24.8 feet. It was expected to crest in Peoria at about noon on March 3 at 25.1 feet and maintain that crest for 24 hours before slowly beginning to recede.
Barging was halted on the Illinois River, and several riverside towns were flooded—among them the town of Marseilles, Ill., next to Marseilles Lock and Dam, which was evacuated by officials as hundreds of homes were inundated.
CME Group, a futures and trading group that trades in grains and other commodities, declared a condition of “force majeure” on February 22 for shipments of barged corn and soybeans transiting the river, “due to loadout impossibility at a majority of corn shipping stations on the Illinois River. Such shipping stations are unable to load due to high water levels and/or flooding.”
Under this declaration, promised delivery dates of shipping contracts can be extended without penalty.
Some Ohio River towns recorded their worst flooding in decades. In Cincinnati, Ohio, the National Weather Service said that the Ohio River crested on February 25 at eight feet above flood stage.
In Louisville, Ky., 16 pumps sent 21 billion gallons of floodwater back into the river. Disasters were declared in 18 Indiana counties. With more rain on the way, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin declared a state of emergency throughout the state, freeing resources for flood fighting and relief.
At Clarksville, Tenn., the Cumberland River reached 40 feet by February 24 and the area was under a flood advisory. Water backed up in several tributaries of the Cumberland.
Further south, the Red River was expected to crest at Shreveport, La., at 31 feet, one foot above flood stage, by March 4. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency for nine parishes as a result of severe weather and flooding.
Flood Fight Teams Activated
The flooding has led the Corps of Engineers to activate flood-fighting teams from four districts to aid flood-fighting efforts in river towns and to monitor floodwaters heading toward the Lower Mississippi. In Vicksburg, Miss., the Mississippi Valley Division said it is working alongside local, state and other federal agencies to help address and minimize flooding due to heavy rains on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and their principal tributaries.
Four of MVD’s six districts–Rock Island District, Memphis District, Vicksburg District and New Orleans District–and division headquarters have activated their emergency operations centers to monitor and respond to the rising water.
“Strong coordination and communication between partners is an integral part of our ability to safely pass this high water,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, MVD commander. “We have a well-prepared, experienced team of emergency responders whose top priority is the safety of the public.”
The Memphis Engineer District said between 15 and 20 employees left Memphis for the Missouri Bootheel to monitor levels as the Mississippi and Ohio rivers continue to rise.
Floodwaters Will Spread Out
At press time, the river in Memphis was forecast to reach 36.5 feet. Crews do not begin enacting flood relief plans in Memphis until the river reaches 37 feet, even though 34 feet is official flood stage.
“The further south you go down the river, the more the river is spread out to accommodate that water,” said Memphis District spokesman Jim Pogue.
The flood control project on the Lower Mississippi River, the Mississippi River & Tributaries (MR&T) project, has provided “unprecedented protection during four severe floods in the past decade,” according to the MVD.
The MR&T project includes four major features: a levee system that includes 3,787 miles of levees and floodwalls; four floodways, including Bonnet Carré, Morganza, Birds Point-New Madrid and the Atchafalaya; channel improvement and stabilization; and tributary basin improvements.
The northern floodwaters are expected to crest at the Bonnet Carré spillway by the third or fourth week of March. The Bonnet Carré spillway was last opened in 2016 and kept open for 22 days. It was also opened in 2008 and 2011.
While the Corps said that current forecasts do not indicate a need to activate the floodways, MVD staff members and district personnel have contacted local, state, and federal partners to keep open lines of communication in case floodway activation becomes necessary. Corps teams and local officials are examining area levees twice a week.